Thank you very much, sir.
Good morning to everyone.
Before I read my formal remarks, let me echo your comment to the effect that this exchange will be very timely. I had the great pleasure of being in front of this committee at some point before Christmas. The timing is a bit of a blur—I think it's been that kind of year for all of us—but it was before you set off on your trip.
What a genuine pleasure it is to be back together with you now that you've been there. I've seen some of the reporting generated by our diplomatic posts following your visit to the region, and very much look forward to hearing your views and reflections, and to answering, to the best of Mr. Morgan's and my ability, any questions you may have this morning. In terms of how we've agreed to organize ourselves, I will deliver these opening remarks on behalf of both of us. In turn, we'll both be happy to answer your questions.
I will begin by providing a scene-setter of key security and foreign policy challenges facing central and eastern Europe and central Asia, followed by the latest developments and Canada's role in the region.
While Kazakhstan, Latvia, Poland, and Ukraine have diverse experiences, they share common challenges rooted in the Soviet legacy, as well as a common backdrop of Russian influence and the related security challenges.
March 18 marked the third anniversary of the annexation of Crimea, a breach of international law that reignited long-standing, historical grievances reminiscent of the Cold War era. Your visit to Ukraine coincided with a sharp spike in violence, which has since declined. While fighting continues, these spikes and lulls demonstrate that there is an ability to control levels of violence, as long as there is the political will to do so. Canada continues to call upon Russia to use its influence to de-escalate the situation.
Since Russian actions in east Ukraine in 2014, neighbours in the region, including Poland and Latvia, have been strongly concerned by Russia's posturing in the region, and have been advocating for an increased military presence along the eastern flank. This ask has been heard loud and clear, with Canada taking a leadership role as the framework nation in Latvia, with the U.S. undertaking a similar role in Poland. Indeed, Poland welcomed the first battalion to the U.S.-led NATO enhanced forward presence battle group on March 28.
Kazakhstan is concerned with growing violent extremism and the instability associated with Afghanistan's proximity. While organizations such as the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe provide support to help build Kazakhstan’s border security and counterterrorism capacities, Russia’s involvement in Central Asia’s security dwarfs that of any other country and organization.
In February President Putin visited Kazakhstan, the Kyrgyz Republic, and Tajikistan to celebrate 25 years of bilateral relations and to discuss enhanced security co-operation. At the end of March, Tajikistan held joint military exercises with over 2,000 Russian troops near its border with Afghanistan. Looking to the future, Kazakhstan seeks, above all, to maintain its independence in the face of a determined Russia and a burgeoning China.
Canada's role in central and eastern Europe and central Asia is of strategic importance and two-pronged, focusing on reinforcing security and stability in the region while also advancing good governance and economic development. Our contributions through Operation Reassurance are tangible symbols of Canada's commitment to key NATO allies and regional defence and security. Since my last appearance before this committee, Canada has renewed Operation Unifier, Canada's military mission to Ukraine.
Recent visits and bilateral meetings with interlocutors from all countries in question attest to Canada's increased engagement in the region. Most recently, Minister Freeland and Minister Champagne welcomed Latvia's minister of foreign affairs, Edgars Rinkevics, to Ottawa on March 23 and 24 for his first official visit to Canada, with discussions focusing on the fruitful Canada-Latvia bilateral relationship, regional defence and security, and Canada-European Union relations.
Minister Freeland met with Mr. Waszczykowski, Poland’s minister of foreign affairs, at the NATO foreign affairs ministers meeting in Brussels on March 31. The discussions centred on military cooperation and Ukraine.
Minister Freeland also participated in the recent NATO-Ukraine Commission organized on the margins of the foreign affairs ministers meeting.
On the commercial front, the Canada-EU comprehensive economic and trade agreement, known as CETA, will be the keystone of our future relationship with Poland and Latvia. Latvia's parliament voted in favour of domestic ratification of CETA on February 23. The fact that Latvia is the first EU member state to ratify the agreement is testament to our growing relationship, and sets the stage for increased momentum on domestic ratification from other neighbouring countries. Minister Champagne visited Latvia that same day to profile this achievement.
Canada is also deepening its economic co-operation with Ukraine through the Canada-Ukraine free trade agreement signed in July 2016 and currently going through the ratification process here in Canada. It was ratified in Ukraine on March 14. Canada is also a strong supporter of Ukraine's reform efforts, having provided over $700 million in multi-faceted support across financial, development, security, and humanitarian spheres. Canada continues to support Kazakhstan's reforms under President Nazarbayev's “100 concrete steps” initiative, and will tomorrow celebrate 25 years of diplomatic relations between Canada and Kazakhstan.
In conclusion, our approach in the region is a holistic one, as part of our broader security strategy in the region and our historic and current support to countries' reform efforts. Moving forward, Canada and its allies will have to adapt to ongoing challenges in the region, the evolving world order, and shifting political tides. We would be interested in your observations following your fact-finding mission, including areas where you see potential impact of Canada's engagement and in the engagement of Canadian parliamentarians.
Thank you very much.