06/12/2014 04:30 EDT | Updated 08/11/2014 05:59 EDT

Russian envoy retires from Canada posting, ending career as canny Cold warrior

OTTAWA - Georgiy Mamedov's diplomatic career was forged in some of the fiercest political fires of the Cold War.

As he prepares to depart Canada as the so-called dean of the country's diplomatic corps after more than 11 years, it is as if he's being re-baptized in those old Cold War flames all over again.

The sharp-accented, sardonic and often provocative Russian ambassador to Canada has become the target of political and public disapproval of President Vladimir Putin's annexation of Crimea and the ongoing unrest in eastern Ukraine caused by pro-Russian gunmen.

He's been called on the carpet behind closed doors in recent months by top Foreign Affairs officials, bearing Canada's official outrage on behalf of the Putin government. He was even heckled in public — some called him a liar — at a recent business luncheon in Toronto.

But as the 66-year-old diplomat told a packed noontime party in his honour at the Russian embassy on Thursday, today's tension with the West pales with the height of the Cold War when he was his country's chief nuclear arms negotiator with the United States.

"I'm absolutely honest telling you all difficult things now are incomparable (to) what used to be during the Cold War," he said. "I'm absolutely sure that in another year we will return to normal in our relations."

Despite the hostile rhetoric from Ottawa aimed at the Kremlin these days, Mamedov said far more is uniting Canada and Russia than dividing them, including economic and military co-operation in the Far North, and a shared vision in its future.

"To use the words of your prime minister — though I am not often in agreement with him, as you know — but still I agree when he says we have a special relationship: two northern energy superpowers," he said.

"Because much of what will happen in the next century will be about resources."

Few seasoned observers are surprised that the current Ukraine-Russian crisis has failed to knock Mamedov off his axis.

"Behind the Falstaffian exterior is a canny and shrewd diplomat who knows how to play the game. (More) importantly, he likes to play the game and he is very good at it," said retired Canadian diplomat Colin Robertson, vice-president of the Canadian Defence and Foreign Affairs Institute.

Mamedov, who holds a doctorate in history, will depart Ottawa in the coming week and return to academic life in Moscow.

Over the years, Mamedov has worked hard to build economic ties between Canada and Russia, in between finessing various flashpoints that periodically raised the ire of the current Harper government.

Those include a Russian submarine planting a flag on the North Pole seabed, accusations of Russian bombers flying too close to Canadian airspace and disgraced Canadian navy sub-lieutenant Jeffrey Delisle, convicted of stealing and selling military secrets to Moscow.

As of late, Mamedov has become the Canadian face of a "regime" that Prime Minister Stephen Harper has personally branded a threat to world peace.

Paul Heinbecker, Canada's former ambassador to the United Nations, recalled how Mamedov bore the brunt of some harsh criticism from his own government while the West was negotiating the end of the 1999 Kosovo crisis.

NATO had bombed the former Yugoslavia for 78 days, driving Russia's ally in Serbia out of the predominantly ethnically Albanian province of Kosovo.

"He was constructive and resourceful and tough and faced down a lot of opposition inside Moscow to deliver the kind of deal Yeltsin could live with," Heinbecker recalled. "I actually saw some of it."

Heinbecker said he came to hold Mamedov in high regard for rising above that pressure.

"There were a lot of people in Moscow who thought this was abandoning the Serbs and letting NATO run wild. He was able to surmount that."

Four years later, Mamedov began his diplomatic run in Ottawa.

"Mamedov played on various levels: Canada-Russia political, economic, social — people to people relations — as well as intellectual," said Robertson.

"He also observed for Russian interests in the wider world especially reporting from Canada on U.S. affairs. We are a very good listening post."

The son of a career diplomat, Mamedov began his own career more than 40 years ago with a short one-year posting at the Soviet Union's embassy in Washington. He returned in the 1970s for four more years that spanned his country's invasion of Afghanistan in 1979.

When the Soviet Union collapsed a decade later, Mamedov was the director of his foreign ministry's desk for Canada and the United States.

For the 12 years prior to his 2003 appointment to Ottawa, he served as Russia's deputy ministry of foreign affairs.

"I'm a historian," Mamedov said, as he fondly recalled accompanying his former president Boris Yeltsin on a trip to Ottawa in the early 1990s when he said post-Soviet Russia's relationship with Canada was first forged.

"He came with deep knowledge of the Kremlin," Robertson said, "after having cut his teeth on the most critical issues of the Cold War: nuclear non-proliferation, negotiating removal of weapons from Ukraine, and U.S.-Soviet relations."

Mamedov's fingerprints are on the Budapest Memorandums of 1994, which resonate today with the ongoing Ukraine crisis.

The agreement was between Ukraine, Russia, Britain and the U.S. It called for the removal of Ukraine's nuclear stockpile in return for Russian recognition of Ukraine's territorial sovereignty — something the West now accuses Putin of leaving in tatters.

"I've seen more difficult times, and I'm quite optimistic," Mamedov said Thursday, telling his Ottawa audience he's enjoyed all of his time here.

"The future is for us. We are both a work in progress."

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