TORONTO — Among the diplomats who gathered in Toronto for a meeting of the leading industrialized nations, Pavlo Klimkin was an outlier.
The foreign minister of Ukraine represents a country with a gross domestic product of $93 billion, compared with envoys from countries with economies measured in the trillions of dollars.
But it was no accident that Klimkin had star billing at the meeting of top diplomats from the Group of Seven countries, known as the G-7. Or that Canadian Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland had him and the other diplomats over to her house for a brunch of waffles and eggs that her children prepared. Or that the first working session was dedicated to Russian interference in Ukraine.
On Monday, the G-7 foreign ministers agreed to establish a working group that aims to “call out” Russian “malign behavior in all of its manifestations,” said British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, “whether it is cyberwarfare, whether it’s disinformation, assassination attempts, whatever it happens to be.”
It was Russia’s behavior in Ukraine in 2014 that got it ousted from the group, which was then known as the G-8. The G-7 now comprises Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan and the United States.
Freeland, who has close ties to Ukraine, designed it so that the country would be front and center.
To Freeland, Ukraine is Exhibit A for Russian interference and an arena for what she calls the defining issue of our time — democracy vs. authoritarianism.
She is the grandchild of Ukrainian immigrants on her mother's side. She grew up speaking Ukrainian with her parents and now speaks it with her children. She is believed to be the world’s only foreign minister who speaks with her Ukrainian counterparts in their own language.
As a young woman, Freeland worked as a journalist in Kiev in the early 1990s, a time of political upheaval that provided an experience she has said now permeates her work as foreign minister.
“Observing the collapse of the vastest communist regime in the world and the efforts to build something in its place has shaped my thinking profoundly,” she told students at the University of Toronto in early April.
It has turned her into one of the G-7’s fiercest critics of the Kremlin and President Vladimir Putin. In retaliation for her barbed critiques, Moscow has banned her from visiting.
The G-7 meeting was another opportunity for Freeland to push Ukraine to the top of the agenda, even though Russia has given no hint of ever returning Crimea to Ukraine or ending its support of separatists in eastern Ukraine.
“Largely because Russia is not showing major signs of flexibility, we need to reinforce to them and the broader international community that our support for Ukraine is not flagging,” said a Canadian diplomat, speaking on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak on her behalf.
In Canada, being pro-Ukraine is smart domestic politics. More than 1.3 million Canadians, about 3 percent of the population, are of Ukrainian origin, and many follow the country’s politics closely. The nation has universal support among politicians.
“Ukraine is us in Canada,” said John Kirton, head of the G-7 Research Group at the University of Toronto. “Chrystia is from that community in a way no other member of the G-7 is.”
Ukraine also fits into Freeland’s worldview — as a canary in a coal mine in the fight to defend liberal democracy at a time when it is under assault worldwide.
“A lot of people felt in 1991 that we were part of this beautiful spread of democracy and human rights and liberal values around the world, and it was unstoppable,” she said in her meeting with university students. But, she added, the spread of liberal values and democracies “is not inevitable.”
The Canadian diplomat, who spoke to Klimkin after he had the chance to talk with his counterparts, said his presence helped counter Russian propaganda that Ukraine is forgotten and on its own, no longer front-page news.
“The broad international support of key players reiterated in this special format was significant to him,” the diplomat said. “It’s important not just to him and the Ukrainian leadership but to the Ukrainian political class at large.”