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Can we have a G20 without Russia? Chrystia Freeland sounds ready to give it a try


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Can we have a G20 without Russia? Chrystia Freeland sounds ready to give it a try

WASHINGTON — Under normal circumstances, the annual April meetings of the World Bank, World Trade Organization, and G20 finance ministers in Washington are pretty boring. Important? Yes. But dull.

Whatever drama there may be in a gabfest of finance ministers and central bankers discussing debt restructuring or interest rate targets isn’t generally the kind of stuff that makes for Hollywood plot lines or clickbait headlines.

But these aren’t normal circumstances. On the heels of a global pandemic — or, possibly still under the heels of it — supply chains have been disrupted, developing economies have been buried in debt, and inflation has soared. That was already the situation early this year. And then Russia launched an invasion of Ukraine.

That ongoing war of aggression has turned many of the problems facing the world’s treasurers into crises. For no one at this week’s meetings is that more true than for Ukrainian Finance Minister Sergii Marchenko.

Introducing Marchenko at the Canadian embassy in D.C. Friday morning, Canada’s Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland noted that during the current Russian invasion, both the apartment building Marchenko grew up in and his grandparents’ family home just west of Kyiv were destroyed. His family remained in their hometown throughout Russia’s occupation of it. “But he did tell me that his parents are now back in their village home, and they are planting potatoes, because that’s what you do in April in Ukraine.”

For Marchenko’s family, as for the world, even as the crisis continues, you need to plant the seeds that will help you emerge on the other side of it.

That’s why, in the middle of a war in which they’re fighting for their country’s survival, Marchenko and Ukrainian Prime Minister Denys Shymal were in Washington this week.

“We are here to explain our situation in Ukraine, where we see the drastic (results) of Russia’s unprovoked invasion in Ukraine, irrational atrocities,” Marchenko said. “What they’ve done, I can’t even explain — you know it quite well. A lot of civilian people were killed. Women. Children. For all people around the world: we need your support. Not only military support, but financial as well.”

He thanked the Canadian people for their “unprecedented” help through the invasion, and singled out Freeland herself as “a great friend of Ukraine.”

Freeland, who spoke confidently at various points throughout the event in English, French and Ukrainian, reiterated her country’s friendship.

Speaking in Ukrainian, she said, according to the official translator, “Canada will not leave Ukraine alone. We really understand that this war, it’s our war. And we understand that very well. And we want to express our thanks. It’s only Ukrainian men and women who fight and who pay with their lives. You die. But we understand that you fight for us.”

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She said Ukrainians are defending not just their territory but the principles of democracy and the rule of law. “We have a moral responsibility, but apart from the moral responsibility, we have the practical responsibility. It’s very important for us to see Ukraine win. And for that, we understand that you need weapons, you need funds, and you need sanctions. And we’re working on it.”

To that end, Freeland spoke of the funding channel Canada helped set up through the International Monetary Fund to support Ukraine, and the $1 billion Canada has already committed to it. She spoke of the $900 million in military aid Canada has also contributed. She talked about the important work that had taken place at meetings this week among the countries of the world in opposing the Russian invasion, and in fighting the economic effects of it both in Ukraine and globally.

But Freeland also spoke of the major obstacle to that work this week — the source of unaccustomed drama in the normally boring meetings: Russia’s presence, which caused Freeland and Bank of Canada Governor Tiff Macklem, alongside leaders from several allied countries, to walk out of G20 and IMF meetings when Russian representatives spoke at them.

“It is the case that the G20 can’t function effectively with Russia at the table, and with Russia in the room. It’s an absurd situation,” she said in English. “Because the central challenge that the global economy is facing right now is Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine. And we can’t really talk about it with Russia in the group.”

Which is kind of the bind right now. Russia is part of those multilateral groups that are trying to respond to its invasion. And there isn’t any simple mechanism to kick the country out.

Macklem had discussed the same bind Thursday evening in a video meeting with reporters, saying Russia’s presence in meetings where the main topic was the “shock to the world economy” Russia had caused was “unacceptable” and “cast a shadow over” the proceedings.

“Obviously, we need peace,” Macklem said. “But we need countries to respect international law. And I think if countries don’t respect international law, we are not going to be able to work with them at the international table.” Macklem suggested the situation could lead to a coming “shift” in which countries like Canada and its allies trade only with others which adhere to the rule of law. “Let me put it this way: When we talk about open trade, I think we’re going to be talking about open and secure trade now.”

Macklem didn’t outline how such a shift would take place. “I think it’s a bit difficult to predict where it goes,” he acknowledged. But he pointed out that the International Monetary Fund itself was set up in the wake of the Second World War, to rebuild the global economy after that war’s devastation. Indeed, it was conceived and founded while that war was ongoing.

Marchenko’s family is planting potatoes, even with their homes in ruins and their country at war, because that’s what you do in April in Ukraine. The world’s leaders were meeting to talk over and around a source of global conflict, because that’s what you do in April in Washington.

In both cases, perhaps there’s a glimpse of hope that even if this April’s efforts don’t halt the devastation, they might eventually help us recover from it.

Edward Keenan is the Star’s Washington Bureau chief. He covers U.S. politics and current affairs. Reach him via email: ekeenan@thestar.ca

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