VLADIVOSTOK, Russia – While the cameras whirred, they were all smiles and warmth as they waxed on about the hockey ties that bind Canada and Russia.
But when it came to ending the bloodshed in Syria, Prime Minister Stephen Harper and President Vladimir Putin disagreed sharply once they retreated behind closed doors.
In many respects, Harper’s meeting with his APEC host in Vladivostok on Saturday demonstrated the distance he has travelled in six years to become a confident world statesman. And it also illustrated the gap that remains between the West and Russia on the crisis in Syria, the Kremlin’s long-time Middle East ally.
Harper urged Putin to be less obstructive toward ending the violence in Syria, where President Bashar Assad has battled an 18-month uprising that has left at least 23,000 his citizens dead.
“Obviously, the government of Russia and ourselves have very different perspectives on this,” Harper said.
Harper delivered that frank message during a 55-minute face to face meeting with Putin — a discussion that lasted almost twice as long as planned.
“Obviously, Mr. Putin has a different perspective, but I urged Russia to play a more positive role than it’s been playing.”
Russia has blocked efforts by the United Nations Security Council to sanction Syria. Canada has joined other Western allies in trying to pressure Russia to cut Assad loose.
Two days earlier, Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird expressed Canada’s disapproval of Russia’s continued support of the Assad regime in his own meeting with counterpart Sergey Lavrov.
Canada may not be a major international player, but it has leverage with Russia because it is keen to deepen two-way ties as the melting Arctic ice pack makes more oil and gas accessible. And as Putin himself said Saturday, Russia is keen to increase the volume of trade between the two countries.
After the meeting, Harper wouldn’t comment on how Putin responded, saying he doesn’t speak for other world leaders.
But a senior government official, who was in the room for the meeting, described the spirited exchange on Syria to The Canadian Press on the condition of anonymity.
Putin countered Harper by saying the West always thinks that going into a country and toppling its leader will solve a problem.
He pointed to the instability that has ensued in Libya, after Canada and its NATO allies launched last year’s air campaign, sanctioned by the United Nations, that toppled dictator Moammar Gadhafi.
Putin told Harper that Russia is not a friend of the Assad regime; Russia just wants stability and a diplomatic solution.
Harper reiterated Canada’s long-standing position that a diplomatic solution is the best option. Canada, he said, is not interested in joining another military campaign.
But the prime minister reiterated his government’s position that Assad must go to prevent further bloodshed.
Putin has struck back at the West’s criticism of his country earlier this week, saying, among other things, that al-Qaida militants were part of the anti-Assad forces.
The two leaders also talked about Iran’s nuclear ambitions.
Afterwards, Harper noted Russia’s efforts as part of the P5-plus-one group of countries that is trying to negotiate an end to Iran’s standoff with the West over its nuclear ambitions.
Harper told reporters his decision to close Canada’s embassy in Iran this week was one that he’d been mulling over since last year’s attack on the British Embassy by frenzied mobs.
“Ever since the attack on the British embassy last year, I have been increasingly concerned about the safety of our diplomats. This is a regime that among its many wrongs does not respect normal practices of diplomatic immunity and protection.”
Putin was one of the first world leaders Harper met after me made his international debut six years ago. The meeting came on Putin’s turf, his hometown of St. Petersburg, at the 2006 G8 summit.
Prior to travelling there, Harper stopped off in London, and met then British Prime Minister Tony Blair. Blair — the veteran world statesman — gave the rookie Harper a rundown on the foreign leaders he was about to meet.
At their photo-op back in 2006, Putin was every bit the stone-faced, unreadable ex-KGB agent that Harper would have expected.
After talking oil and gas, Harper tried to break the ice by raising a familiar topic: “We’ll also talk about some important things such as ice hockey. And you will explain to me how to maintain my popularity at high levels.”
Six years later, Putin’s popularity isn’t what it used to be.
Putin formally opened the 21-nation APEC leaders’ summit Saturday facing unprecedented popular dissatisfaction with his presidency. There were large protests this past spring after his controversial re-election.
He’s also been attacked over last month’s two-year prison sentence to members of the subversive punk band Pussy Riot for their anti-Putin “punk prayer” in Moscow.
The punishment has come to symbolize what many view as Russia’s recent backsliding on democracy.
Harper and his government have been quiet about the unrest in Russia in the weeks heading into the summit, stressing the economy will be his priority at APEC
Before the cameras on Saturday, there were genuine moments of warmth between Harper and Putin. They spoke amiably about boosting two-way trade and the 40th anniversary of the Canada-USSR hockey summit series.
Putin said he met some of the Canadian team members, who have recently travelled to Russia, and that he really enjoyed talking with them.
He called them “goodwill ambassadors” for Canada.
After the meeting, Harper said there are things that Putin and his government don’t necessarily agree on. “But I’ll always say that our conversations are always extremely frank on these issues.”