05/28/2013 01:58 EDT | Updated 07/28/2013 05:12 EDT

Navy spy case barely caused diplomatic ripples between Canada and Russia

OTTAWA - The arrest of a Canadian naval officer spying for Russia did little to discourage Canada from welcoming that country's defence chief to a Newfoundland meeting of Arctic nations last year.

The visit underscored the puzzling lengths to which the Harper government went to carry on a business-as-usual relationship with the one-time Cold War adversary in the wake of the Jeffrey Delisle case.

Documents obtained by The Canadian Press under the Access to Information Act show that when the scandal involving Delisle broke in January 2012, Canada had not yet asked a group of Arctic nations to an April meeting of chiefs of defence.

And yet — despite the damage caused by Delisle's espionage on behalf of the Russians — Gen. Nikolai Makarov was invited to and attended the get-together, meant to enhance co-operation between Arctic countries.

Most other planned military contacts between the two nations last year — including participation in the anti-terrorism exercise Operation Vigilant Eagle — also remained curiously normal.

It happened at a time when the Harper government was struggling to explain to its allies how a junior officer could filch a vast swath of top secret information without so much as raising an eyebrow within the Canadian Forces.

The one sign something was amiss came when Defence Minister Peter MacKay abruptly, but quietly, cancelled a planned visit to Moscow. That decision, however, occurred in the fall of 2011, weeks before the RCMP began investigating Delisle and subsequently arrested him.

Defence officials recently pointed to the cancellation as a concrete display of displeasure in the spy case. It suggests MacKay was aware of a secret investigation of Delisle by the Canadian Security Intelligence Service before the Mounties took over.

Earlier this week, The Canadian Press revealed that CSIS had the junior naval officer under surveillance for months before the RCMP was called in to build a criminal case. Delisle, 42, pleaded guilty and was sentenced earlier this year to 20 years in prison.

The Harper government has not publicly acknowledged that Russia was behind the espionage, a stance that is deliberate and was agreed upon internally from the beginning, said several government sources.

The government has maintained its silence even though court records lay out the Cold War foil's actions. Asked whether the Russian ambassador had ever been called in, or if a demarche — a formal diplomatic note — was delivered to the Kremlin, a spokesman for Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird refused to discuss any action that might have been taken to protest Delisle's activities.

"We don't comment on matters of national security," Rick Roth said in a terse response.

He did not explain how national security would be affected by discussing the potential fallout of an already concluded case.

Even after the RCMP began its investigation of Delisle, defence officials fretted about the snub MacKay delivered to Moscow by cancelling his trip. In a late-December 2011 memo, forwarded by then-deputy minister Robert Fonberg, they suggested a meeting with Russian ambassador Georgiy Mamedov to "personally convey your continued commitment to visit Russia to meet with your counterpart."

They pressed him to "propose a concrete date" for a rescheduled trip and noted that senior officials, including Gen. Walt Natynczyk, the now-retired chief of defence staff, had been "systematically engaging Russia."

A MacKay spokesman said the meeting with Mamedov never went ahead.

Media reports following Delisle's Jan. 13, 2012, arrest claimed that up to four Russian diplomats were expelled from Canada over the spy case. But those reports were never publicly corroborated by the Harper government, and were flatly disputed by the Kremlin.

At the time, political sources pointed to the official list of foreign government representatives in Canada and noted names stricken from the register, including that of former Russian defence attache Lt.-Col. Dmitry Fedorchatenko.

The other missing names were Konstantin Kolpakov, Mikhail Nikiforov and Tatiana Steklova.

Yet both Fedorchatenko and Kolpakov — both well known within the Ottawa defence community — left weeks before a criminal investigation was opened by the RCMP; it had been public knowledge for months that their terms were about to expire.

"Some were routine rotations. It was time for them to end their tour," said a source familiar with the diplomatic movements.

As for the number actually expelled, "It was small. It was a handful or less."

The understated response is reminiscent of former prime minister Mackenzie King's minimalist handling of the Igor Gouzenko case — the defection of a former Soviet Embassy clerk whose revelations of spying on the West helped touch off the Cold War.

Back then, it was a fear of antagonizing the Soviet Union at the end of the Second World War that drove the response, an approach that intelligence expert Wesley Wark said makes no sense today.

"Why a Conservative government in 2011 or 2012 would have a similar instinct baffles me, to be honest," said Wark, a visiting professor at the University of Ottawa's graduate school of public and international affairs.

"I simply don't understand their policy. There would be absolutely no harm and the Russians would have absolutely expected that the Canadians would have at least made a formal protest about Russians spying on Canada."

In fact, Wark said, the "baseline is that you make a formal protest" and escalate the reaction from there depending upon how much noise one wishes to make.

"In this case it seems they didn't want to do the formal protest. They didn't want to trouble the Russia relations," said Wark, who was an expert witness at Delisle's sentencing.

The federal government might be concerned about fostering good relations with Russia on matters such as joint military ventures and competing territorial claims over the Arctic continental shelf, said Rob Huebert, an associate professor of political science at the University of Calgary who studies Canada's foreign and defence policies.

"Are we trying to play nice just because of all these other vested interests that we have?"

Advisers might be urging the prime minister to avoid public declarations of annoyance with Moscow in order to make gains on key policy files, Huebert said. "I think that that's probably what we're seeing within the Harper government."

Still, the tepid response seems at odds with persistent efforts by the Conservatives to burnish their military and law-and-order credentials.

Relations are so placid some members of the House of Commons defence committee were recently invited to a reception at the Russian ambassador's residence as if nothing had happened.

"I said, these guys have just picked our pockets clean for the last three, four, five years and we're going to be going to a wine tasting?" said Liberal MP John McKay.

"C'mon, does that make sense? The Russians must be saying to themselves, 'This is the nicest country in the world.'"

He feels nobody has a good answer as to why Canada has treated Moscow with kid gloves, and the issue deserves to be explored.

McKay said that during the defence committee's recent visit to Washington he quietly broached the spy scandal with Canadian Ambassador Gary Doer, and it was brushed off as "something that is already behind us."