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Ex-Canadian ambassador who called Putin among ‘finest’ leaders quits Russian firm over invasion


‘It is indeed fair to say that the invasion of Ukraine changed my views. Period,’ Christopher Westdal told the Post

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For years, Christopher Westdal has had a consistent message about Russia.

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Vladimir Putin was one of the “finest leaders Russia’s had in centuries” — not the devil he’s made out to be in the West — his country doesn’t want war, and neighbouring Ukraine is rife with corruption and nationalism, the former ambassador to Moscow said repeatedly.

Canada owes Moscow more respect and less antagonism, Westdal argued before parliamentary committees and in the media.

But it appears the retired diplomat’s long advocacy for engagement with the Kremlin may have run its course.

Westdal quietly stepped down this week as board chair of a Russia-based mining company, a role that paid him $100,000 a year in cash and stock compensation, citing the war Putin launched against his neighbour a week ago.

“I resigned from the board of Silver Bear Resources because in present circumstances I cannot reconcile my values with continued membership,” he said in a brief email exchange, declining further comment. “It is indeed fair to say that the invasion of Ukraine changed my views. Period.”

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Westdal’s resignation after 15 years on Silver Bear’s board is another example of the collateral damage the war is having on corporate ties between the West and Russia.

Oligarch Roman Abramovich announced Wednesday he was selling England’s Chelsea football club, donating the proceeds to Ukrainian war victims, while oil-industry giants British Petroleum and Shell both said they were divesting multi-billion-dollar stakes in Russian projects or companies.

Sanctions that have cut off Russian banks and other parts of its economy from much of the outside world have likely added to moral pressures to abandon those links.

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Silver Bear, which owns the Mangazeisky silver deposit in the country’s far north but trades on the Toronto stock exchange, saw its share price tumble over the last several days. The company is analyzing the impact of sanctions but has “several alternatives to make hard currency payments when necessary,” it said in a news release Monday.

Westdal did the right thing by resigning and any other Canadians with similar connections should follow suit, argued Borys Wrzesnewskyj, a former Liberal MP and prominent Ukrainian-Canadian activist.

The ex-ambassador used his status as a respected former public servant to essentially push the Kremlin’s viewpoint, he charged, while helping oversee a company that obtained an exclusive licence to a large mineral deposit in Russia.

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“It’s time for all socially responsible companies to cut all their business ties with the Russian state and Russian oligarchs,” Wrzesnewskyj added.

Westdal was the non-executive chair of the board of Silver Bear, which began production of silver from its mines in the last few years and recorded revenue of $51 million in 2020.

He was ambassador to Russia from 2003 to 2006, capping off a distinguished foreign-service career that also included stints as the head of missions to Ukraine, South Africa and Bangladesh.

Westdal joined the board of Silver Bear around 2007 and later began arguing publicly for Canada to improve its relations with Russia and see beyond the growing vilification of Putin, accused of suppressing political opposition and independent media and waging brutal wars in Chechnya.

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With the benefit of hindsight from recent days, he may well cringe at some of his past comments.

Russia is not going to hell, it’s “coming from hell,” he told a Canadian International Council event in 2012, according to the Ottawa Citizen. “All things considered, (Putin) is already one of the finest leaders Russia’s had in centuries.”

He later characterized the 2014 popular “Maidan” uprising that led to the unseating of Russian-backed President Victor Yanukovych as picking “a fight Kyiv can’t win with the Kremlin.” The ultra-nationalists who took over, said the ex-diplomat, alienated ethnic Russians with policies like a ban on Russian-language teaching in schools.

Even after the Russian army captured Crimea from Ukraine and took part in a “hybrid” war in the country’s eastern Donbass region, he urged Canada to work toward rapprochement with Moscow.

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He argued that NATO’s rapid expansion into Eastern Europe had unsurprisingly caused security jitters in the Kremlin.

“I don’t think Moscow is an aggressive marauder,” Westdal said in 2017 testimony before the House of Commons standing committee on national defence. “I don’t think it wants war and a broken Ukraine on its western flank.”

During “many hours of close observation” while ambassador “I found Vladimir Putin engaging, courteous, articulate, highly intelligent, very well briefed, with a prodigious memory — a patriot and a realist, pragmatic above all,” he said in a 2015 presentation at Carleton University. Westdal conceded that those were probably Putin’s best years and that he later let power go to his head.

But he argued in a 2017 article for Esprit de Corps magazine that Canada should support then-U.S. President Donald Trump’s attempts at détente with Russia.

“I don’t think Putin is a demon,” he told the Commons committee around the same time. “He strikes me as one of the more rational adults in the room.”

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