OTTAWA — Canada wants to work with the United States to face the "challenge" posed by Russia, Foreign Affairs Minister Stephane Dion said Thursday.
Dion steered clear of weighing in directly on comments Donald Trump made during the U.S. election campaign in which he praised Russian President Vladimir Putin.
But the minister said Canada and the U.S. have a shared interest in dealing with Russia's incursion into Ukraine.
"We want to have a very positive and constructive role to play in our relationship with the United States bilaterally and also what we can do together in the world, including facing the challenge (of) Russia," Dion said in an interview.
Russia's annexation of Ukraine's Crimea Peninsula in 2014 and its backing of separatist rebels in the country's east have prompted NATO to bolster its military footprint in eastern Europe.
"The NATO policy is deterrence and dialogue. Canada was alone to do deterrence without dialogue and we are correcting that," said Dion.
The Conservative opposition has criticized Dion and the Liberals for re-engaging with Russia, accusing it of "cosying up" to the "Putin regime." Former prime minister Stephen Harper avoided direct contact with Putin at international events during most of his last two years in office, as his government downgraded diplomatic contact.
Dion said after the U.S. election that Canada would maintain sanctions on Russia. Last week, his spokesman Joseph Pickerill told The Canadian Press that Canada's diplomatic re-engagement with Russia did not mean "business as usual."
"The duration of our sanctions are clearly linked to Russia's complete implementation of the Minsk agreements and respect for Ukraine's sovereignty," he said.
"Conversely, Canada, together with its G7 partners, stands ready take further restrictive measures should Russia's actions so require."
On Thursday, European Council President Donald Tusk said it would be hard to preserve the West's unity on Moscow after Trump is sworn in on Jan. 20.
Tusk told a Polish television station that in a recent conversation he had with the president-elect, Trump was more concerned with Britain's decision to leave the European Union after this summer's Brexit vote than he was about Russia.
Dion refused to be drawn into a discussion about Trump's Russia policies.
He said the government's "policy" is not to speculate on what the Trump administration might do once in power.
John Brennan, the director of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, was not as reluctant. He told the BBC earlier this week that Trump should be "wary" of Russia's promises and criticized it for its role in helping the Syrian government wage its costly civil war.
Peter Kent, the Conservative foreign affairs critic, said it is too early to say whether Trump will temper his campaign rhetoric on Russia.
"We hope that among the foreign policy experts he engages in his administration there will be cautionary voices urging great care in dealings with Russia," Kent said.
Kent said he is concerned with "the government's muted voice regarding the defenceless civilians of Aleppo and elsewhere in Syria" and its desire to "get to the table with Russia on Arctic issues."
Dion's office took issue with that characterization, noting that Canada recently gathered the support of more than 70 countries to press the UN General Assembly to address the Syrian crisis.
Pickerill said Canada has no intention of retiring to the "megaphone diplomacy" of the Conservative era.
"This is Canada at work, doing the real business of diplomacy and engaging in substance, not sound bites."
Brennan also told the British broadcaster it would be "the height of folly" to tear up the 2015 Iran agreement, which restricts Iran's ability to take part in certain nuclear activities in exchange for lifting sanctions.
Dion also said he wants to see the nuclear deal with Iran preserved, something Trump has said he wants to scrap.
"We think it's a deal (that is) good for the world, and we support it," Dion said.
Kent said given that Trump has already "modified" a series of campaign promises, it's not clear the nuclear deal with Iran — which the Conservatives opposed in the last days of their government and in opposition — is in any jeopardy.
Mike Blanchfield, The Canadian Press