OTTAWA (Reuters) - Canada will seek closer relations with Russia despite deep tensions over Moscow's actions in Ukraine, new Liberal Foreign Minister Stephane Dion signaled on Thursday, marking a major policy shift.
Last October the Liberals defeated the Conservatives, who had cut most high-level ties with Moscow and slapped sanctions on Russian firms, officials and business executives in response to the actions of Russian-backed militants in Ukraine.
"If we don't engage with Russia we don't help Ukraine (and) we don't help Canada's interests," Dion told a foreign policy forum. Canada and Russia both have competing interests in the Arctic, home to potentially vast reserves of oil and gas.
Dion said the United States, which has also imposed punitive measures on Russia, was dealing directly with Moscow on a number of international issues. It would be irresponsible for the two nations not to have such contacts, he said.
"So something that is irresponsible for the United States would also be irresponsible for Canada, don't you think? So that is the approach we will have when building a foreign policy," he said.
Canada, Dion added, would maintain the sanctions on Russia for as long as necessary and remained a strong ally of Ukraine. He plans to visit Kiev next week.
(Reporting by David Ljunggren; Editing by Tom Brown)