During the first two months of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Canada’s ambassador in Moscow dined with top diplomats, gathered intel from local sources and hosted allies at the embassy.
Nearly 100 pages of documents obtained by the Star through an access-to-information request paint a partial picture of ambassador Alison LeClaire’s travel and networking schedule for the crucial months of March and April 2022.
In the eyes of one former ambassador, the documents show how LeClaire walked a careful line, “serving Canadian interests within strict constraints and difficult circumstances.”
Canada’s Embassy in Moscow, despite acting as Canada’s diplomatic nerve center in Russia, was described by one Russia analyst at Global Affairs Canada (GAC) as “very under-staffed” in August 2021, according to internal emails reviewed by the Star through an access -to information request.
In an April report, Stéphane Dion, in his role as Canada’s special envoy to the European Union and Europe, wrote that “10 years ago, Canada had roughly 50 Canadian employees in its embassy in Moscow; now it has been reduced to just 16.”
Plunged into crisis, with support from her skeleton crew at the Embassy, LeClaire met with connections across the city — and continent — as the war raged on.
LeClaire, named our ambassador to Russia in 2019, convened several events for ambassadors around town, typically hosting at the Canadian Embassy, and occasionally dining out with close allies.
On March 4, mere days after the invasion began, LeClaire hosted an official lunch for other ambassadors based in Moscow, although the attendees are not disclosed. G7 foreign ministers held a meeting the same day, reiterating their condemnation of Russia’s “unprovoked and unjustifiable war of choice.” Two weeks later, LeClaire organized a midday meal with ambassadors from Croatia, Italy, Lithuania, Egypt and Portugal in a bid to “further information sharing and cooperation,” according to hospitality expense forms.
On March 18, LeClaire dashed off to Paris for four days of “strategic discussions,” mandated by the Prime Minister’s Office, on the Canada-Europe relationship. All of Canada’s Europe-based ambassadors were to attend the meetings, which aimed to “facilitate coherence and coordination” between GAC and Canadian diplomats on the continent.
At the end of the month, LeClaire met with one of the “few remaining Canadian businesspeople in Moscow” at Linbistro, a chic Italian restaurant near the Embassy, to understand how the city’s business community was responding to the “crisis situation.” An employee from the Canada Eurasia Chamber of Commerce (the recently renamed Canada Eurasia Russia Business Association) also attended the meeting, according to the documents.
Since February, Canada has imposed sanctions on more than 1,150 individuals and entities from and in Russia, Ukraine and Belarus, while GAC now advises that any Canadian business “engaging in commercial activities in Russia or with Russian entities should consider seeking legal advice.”
LeClaire and the head of immigration at the Embassy brought together ambassadors from the Netherlands, Poland, Romania and Slovakia, as well as representatives from the Red Cross and the United Nations Refugee Agency, for a lunch in early April.
Participants discussed “the impact of the war on refugee flows” as well as humanitarian issues in Russia.
The Netherlands, Poland, Romania, and Slovakia have all taken in significant numbers of Ukrainians since late February, with 1.2 million refugees from Ukraine registering for temporary protection in Poland alone as of June 30. About 80,000 Ukrainian citizens and returning Canadian permanent residents of Ukrainian origin arrived in Canada between Jan. 1 and Aug 28.
On April 12, LeClaire and her deputy, Brian Ebel, met with two Moscow-based representatives of the Orthodox Church in America over lunch to “gather intel on non-public aspects of the Russian Orthodox positioning on the war,” fostering an “already strong relationship” between the Embassy and the Church, according to LeClaire’s hospitality event diary.
Two and a half months after that meeting, Canada imposed sanctions on Vladimir Mikhailovich Gundyayev, head of the Russian Orthodox Church (a separate entity from the Orthodox Church in America) and close ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
LeClaire dined with New Zealand’s top diplomat in Moscow, Sarah Walsh, on April 22 at Geraldine, an upscale French bistro, to discuss the “current geo-political situation,” likely bureaucratic shorthand for the impacts of Russia’s invasion. Both Canada and New Zealand slapped sanctions on Russia on April 19: Canada on close associates of Putin, including his two adult daughters, and New Zealand on 18 Russian financial institutions, including Russia’s central bank.
As the war hit the two-month mark in late April — and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov declared “a new phase” to the conflict — LeClaire, who also acts as Canada’s ambassador to Uzbekistan and Armenia, traveled to Yerevan, Armenia’s capital, for meetings.
Over the course of one week, she dined with two employees from Armenia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and then separately with the US ambassador to Armenia. LeClaire also went to dinner with an expert from a Yerevan-based think tank to gain insights on “Armenia’s foreign policy (notably negotiations with Turkey, and with Azerbaijan) as well as domestic political developments.”
On her last evening in Yerevan, LeClaire dined with heads of mission from the UK, Sweden and the EU to “advance key Canadian interests,” and then attended a 20-guest reception for the Armenian-Canadian community at the Hyatt Hotel’s restaurant, with the Canadian government footing the bill.
Two months later, Foreign Affairs Minister Mélanie Joly announced that Canada would be opening a full embassy in Armenia with a resident ambassador.
Chris Westdal, who acted as Canada’s ambassador to Ukraine from 1996 to 1998 and later ambassador to Russia from 2003 to 2006, had nothing but praise for LeClaire and her team.
He told the Star that the documents are evidence that LeClaire was “carrying on in Yerevan and Moscow sensibly and conscientiously, serving Canadian interests within strict constraints and difficult circumstances.”
A GAC spokesperson said that Canadian diplomats in Moscow “provide valuable analysis of the situation on the ground that can help counter Putin regime propaganda, identify potential targets for future sanctions, and support Canada’s overall response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine.”
Nicole Jackson, an associate professor at Simon Fraser University whose focuses include Russian and Canadian foreign policy, told the Star that the documents show “a little about how our government and, in particular, the Embassy in Moscow was reaching out to various allies and friends , trying to understand events in Ukraine and their geopolitical significance.”
When LeClaire returned to Moscow from Yerevan, she held a working lunch at the Embassy to “advance key interests with respect to the current geo-political situation.” This time, LeClaire hosted a disparate group, dining with ambassadors from Brazil, Bulgaria, France, India, Ireland, Mexico, Spain and Switzerland.
While filing her expense claims for April, LeClaire requested an advance of 200,000 rubles, equal to roughly $4,000, for the month of May, as she noted “Canadian credit cards (are) no longer accepted in Russia,” requiring her “to pay in cash for provisions for HOM (head of mission) hospitality,” such as coffee, water, and sweets.
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