BUSINESS
03/24/2014 12:00 EDT

Harper Warns Canadian Companies Of 'Risks' In Russia As Tensions Escalate

Prime Minister Stephen Harper has warned Canadian companies doing business in Russia they face “risks” because of the growing diplomatic crisis over Ukraine.

The statement comes as some Canadian business leaders expressed fear Russia could retaliate against Canada’s strong stance on Ukraine by seizing Canadian assets.

At a roundtable with Dutch business leaders in The Hague Monday, Harper said his government “will do what we can to maximize the commercial opportunities for our firms,” but “we will not shape our foreign policy to commercial interests.”

Harper said business people “have to be aware that there may be risks to them and the government will take those risks, because at those points in times the government's foreign and security policy priorities become paramount.”

Evidence is growing that the crisis — in which Prime Minister Stephen Harper has played a vocal anti-Russian role — is beginning to affect Canadian companies with business interests in Russia.

Aircraft manufacturer Bombardier says its $3.4-billion aircraft order with Russian firm Rostekhnologii is on hold due to the sanctions being imposed on Russia by Western countries. Bombardier had planned to open a factory in Russia to fulfill the order.

Business leaders who spoke with the Globe and Mail say many are baffled by the Harper government’s “antagonistic” role in the conflict.

“Everbody’s nervous,” said one exec, a veteran of doing business in Russia, who asked not to be named. “They’re asking us ‘what’s next from Ottawa?’ and we say ‘We don’t know, they’re not consulting us.’”

The Globe reported that a recent Canada-Eurasia-Russia charity auction in Moscow, “rumours of a blowback from the Russian side” dominated conversation. The newspaper noted that some Russian politicians have called on Russia to nationalize the assets of Western firms in retaliation for the sanctions.

Tensions between Russia and Canada escalated again on Monday when Russia slapped an entry ban on 13 Canadian lawmakers and officials in retaliation to Canadian sanctions regarding Ukraine.

Russia's Foreign Ministry said in a statement that the move is a response to the "unacceptable action by the Canadian side that has inflicted serious damage to bilateral relations."

In recent days, Harper has called for a “complete reversal” of Russia’s annexation of Crimea, and is expected to push this week for Russia’s expulsion from the G8.

Bilateral trade between Russia and Canada is a fairly small chunk of Canada's overall trade picture, accounting for some $3 billion in activity annually. Canadians have about $5 billion invested in Russia, according to the Canada Eurasia Russia Business Association.

With files from The Canadian Press

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