- Our Town
Harper heads to Europe with Putin on his mind
By Mike Blanchfield, The Canadian Press
OTTAWA - Prime Minister Stephen Harper will join fellow world leaders in Europe this week in affirming Western solidarity against Russian aggression in Ukraine, as he departs Tuesday on a week-long trip.
Harper will join other world leaders converging on Europe for various events this week that will mark historic events such as the D-Day invasion at Normandy and the demise of the Cold War.
One target will remain in Harper's political crosshairs as he visits three countries this coming week: Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Though Harper served notice he will use part of the trip to cajole funds from allies for his signature aid initiative on maternal, newborn and child health, it will be his looming date with Putin that will define it.
Harper will end the week with Putin — and many of Canada' major allies — at the 70th anniversary commemoration of D-Day in France, following a Russia-less G7 summit in Belgium, and a symbolic anti-Cold War celebration in Poland.
France has invited Putin to the D-Day celebration, but Harper has expressed no desire to say anything directly to the Russian leader, whom he has dubbed a threat to world peace because of Russia's annexation of the Crimean Peninsula and for instigating the continuing unrest in eastern Ukraine.
But Harper's recent words and his deeds in the coming days will be aimed squarely at the Russian leader.
Harper set the stage by blasting Putin in a fiery speech in Toronto this past Friday, linking him with the worst evils of 20th century communism, which he called a ruthless and "poisonous ideology" that "slowly bled into countries around the world."
After arriving in Warsaw, Poland late Tuesday, Harper will join U.S. President Barack Obama and other world leaders on Wednesday to mark what the prime minister's office has dubbed "the 25th anniversary of Poland's emergence from communism."
June 4, 1989, was the day Poland's anti-communist Solidarity movement officially won power in democratic parliamentary elections, one of the many eastern European milestones that marked the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Poland has become an Eastern European success story in that quarter century, a counterpoint to economically-hobbled Ukraine's ongoing struggle to break free from the influence of Putin's Russia.
Harper will meet Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk to discuss the world's response to the Ukraine crisis.
"They are a strong partner for Canada and are a like-minded ally," said an aide close to the prime minister, who agreed to speak on condition of anonymity.
"They have been steadfast, like Canada, in their position that Russia's aggression cannot go without a strong response from the international community."
Harper then moves on to Brussels to attend a hastily reconfigured G7 summit, where only German Chancellor Angela Merkel outranks him as the group's longest serving leader.
Russia was supposed to hold the G8 summit in Sochi, but it has been kicked out of the group because of its actions in Ukraine.
While jobs and the global economy will be key issues, the situation in Ukraine and "Russia's military aggression" will also be top of mind for Harper at the G7, said the Harper aide.
"On that he will likely reiterate his position that a common front is the best, most effective way to respond to the ongoing situation."
Harper is coming off an international high after hosting guests from around the world last week at his summit on helping mothers and newborns in the developing world. Harper made a five-year, $3.5 billion commitment to the cause, to 2020, and said he planned to use the G7 to raise more.
As the summit wrapped, Harper said the other G7 countries are in worse economic shape than Canada and face "significant budgetary challenges." But he said he still planned to pitch for support for his flagship international aid priority, which dates back to 2010 after he made an initial $2.8-billion commitment at the G8 summit he hosted.
"I think for all countries, at least for the investments they've already made, we can point to great results, and that I think, alone, is the selling point on why they should renew," Harper said.
Harper ends the week in France, where he will join world leaders in commemorating the 70th anniversary of the Allied invasion of Normandy near the end of the Second World War.
France has invited Putin, but Harper has no plans to meet the Russian leader. Putin did his best to bait Harper in late May during a question and answer session with international media leaders, including The Canadian Press.
"We are ready for discussion, including with the prime minister," Putin told the media executives in his hometown of St. Petersburg. "If there is such a necessity or desire now, we are ready."
The response from Harper's office was a firm, no thanks.
Less than a week later, Harper unloaded on Putin at a fundraiser in Toronto, saying the Russian leader has "grown more comfortable with confrontation" and "expansionism and militarism."