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Harper suspends joint military activities between Canada and Russia

Prime Minister Stephen Harper stands in the House of Commons during question period on Feb. 11, 2014. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Fred Chartrand

Canada has suspended all joint military activities with Russia, Prime Minister Stephen Harper said Tuesday as Vladimir Putin lashed out at threats of sanctions against his country and accused the West of sowing divisions within Ukraine.

Canada will no longer take part in an anti-terrorism drill involving Canadian and Russian air forces and has pulled out of scheduled meetings, Harper said in a statement.

The prime minister also threatened to further sever the already frayed ties between the two countries.

“We continue to view the situation in Ukraine with the gravest concern and will continue to review our relations with President Putin’s government accordingly,” the statement said.

The move came a day after the House of Commons unanimously passed a motion condemning Russia’s military intervention in the country, which has been riven by protests for months.

And it comes on top of other measures already imposed by Harper, including withdrawing Canada’s ambassador to Russia and boycotting all preparatory meetings for the G8 summit, which is supposed to be held in Sochi in June.

Tensions reached new heights late last week after the Russian military made a dramatic incursion into Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula.

Russian troops are stationed around Crimea’s ferry, military bases and border posts, while the Russian navy is blocking two Ukrainian warships from leaving the port of Sevastopol.

Putin sought to ease those tensions Tuesday, saying Russia has no intention “to fight the Ukrainian people.” However, he asserted his country’s right to use its military to protect the Russian-speaking population in Ukraine.

Russia also agreed to a special meeting in Brussels on Wednesday to discuss the situation in Ukraine.

Putin’s remarks were his first since ousted Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych fled and just as U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry arrived in the capital city of Kyiv to meet the country’s fledgling transition government.

Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird — who met Tuesday with Ukraine’s ambassador to Canada, Vadym Prystaiko — scoffed at Putin’s justification for sending troops into Ukraine.

“These Soviet-style tactics are dangerous and tremendously destabilizing to the whole region,” Baird said.

“The pretext that Putin uses for these military operations are ludicrous and transparently unacceptable.

“Canada can never accept — and the international community must never accept — ethnic nationalist justification for invading a peaceful, democratic neighbour.”

He repeated a comparison between Russia’s actions now and Nazi Germany’s annexation of Sudetenland from Czechoslovakia in 1938 before the start of the Second World War.

Prystaiko said he and Baird spoke during their meeting about sending international observers to Ukraine to monitor the situation on the ground.

Harper has said Canada supports immediate deployment of monitors from the United Nations and the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe. But it’s not yet clear whether Canada will participate in such missions.

The OSCE announced Tuesday that it is dispatching an unarmed military observer mission to Crimea, at Ukraine’s request. Fifteen nations, including the United States, are contributing two individuals each to the mission, but other member nations may yet join the mission.

“Canada supports the immediate deployment of international monitors from the UN and from the OSCE,” Harper spokesman Jason MacDonald said in a statement when asked whether Canada would be taking part.

“We’ll work with our allies to see how best to support this effort.”

Prystaiko also accused Georgiy Mamedov, Russia’s ambassador in Ottawa, of “hypocrisy” for urging Yanukovych’s reinstatement only days after he signed a book of condolences at the Ukrainian embassy for people killed by Yanukovych’s forces.

“How can you come and sign a book of condolences for people killed, and then the next day advocate for the same person to be reinstated as the leader of the same people?” Prystaiko said.

A small group of protesters gathered Tuesday outside the Russian embassy in Ottawa on Tuesday morning to protest the invasion, waving placards and chanting anti-Putin slogans.

Dan Popowych, a Ukrainian Canadian with family and friends in Ukraine, said the people of Ukraine will not back down from a fight.

“I know that my family over there, my friends, are not going to run for a fight. They’re going to stand their ground,” Popowych said.

“So I’m no so much worried for their safety as I am proud that they’re at least standing their ground and voicing their opinions and saying that, ‘We’re not afraid, we’re willing to die and be shot at, to make sure that this thing works.'”

Rookie Liberal MP Chrystia Freeland, who arrived in Kyiv early Tuesday, said she was struck by how “calm and determined” people appeared to be.

In a telephone interview, Freeland said almost everyone she’s seen in Ukraine’s capital — be they speaking Ukrainian or Russian — were wearing blue and yellow ribbons in a show of support for the country’s independence.

Ukrainians are “very appreciative” of western support, particularly from Canada, with which they feel a “special connection,” Freeland said. They are worried, however, that “it might not be enough” should it come to war with Russia.

“I think Ukrainians would love to have (military) help. I think Ukrainians also understand they have to help themselves,” said Freeland, whose mother helped write Ukraine’s constitution.

Baird has ruled out military intervention by western countries.

With files from The Associated Press, Joan Bryden and Ben Makuch in Ottawa