Canadian ties to Ukraine long used as wedge against Russia

Chants of “CA-NA-DA” at rallies. The Maple Leaf waving at protest camps. A Canadian labeled “godfather” of its military. Canada has long had significant influence in Ukraine, which it has used to drive a centuries old bid to weaken Russia.

In “Winter on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom” the camera pans over a Maple Leaf hanging from a tent at the 2014 Maidan protest, which forced out an elected president and led to an eight-year war in the country’s east. Why was the Canadian flag on display?

The federal government and ultranationalist Ukrainian Canadian Congress (UCC) poured funds into western oriented civil society groups and encouraged the Maidan protests by demonizing President Viktor Yanukovych throughout his time in office. In an October 2011 letter threatening to sever Canada’s “special” relationship with Ukraine, Harper wrote, “I cannot overstate the potential negative impact of the current judicial proceedings against [former presidential candidate] Yulia Tymoshenko on both Ukraine’s future relations with Canada and others.”

Early in the three month protest movement Canada’s foreign minister John Baird visited Maidan square with UCC president Paul Grod. From the stage Grod announced Baird’s presence and support for the protesters, which led many to chant “Thank you Canada”.

The individual who became president three months after the Maidan protests said, “Canada is one of Ukraine’s closest partners”. During his September 2014 visit to Ottawa Petro Poroshenko added that Ukraine had “no better friend”. (Countering President Poroshenko’s statement, the Canadian Press story revealing that Maidan protesters had used the Canadian Embassy for a week noted, “Canadians are not very popular in some quarters and occasionally loathed by pro-Russian Ukrainians.”)

Canada’s influence in a country 7,000 km away has been staggering. Here are just a few examples:

  • Three weeks before Russia’s criminal invasion, the Globe and Mail reported that Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau succeeded in convincing President Zelensky to block legal proceedings against Poroshenko who is accused of treason.
  • In 2019 Poroshenko dubbed former defence minister Jason Kenney “the godfather of the modern Ukrainian army” due to his role in instigating Canada’s significant training mission after the 2014 coup. Immediately after fighting broke out in the eastern Donbas region Canada joined a Ukraine Commission for Defence Reform and Security Cooperation and “began delivering nonlethal but indispensable military supplies in large quantities” to a military reluctant to kill those in the east of the country.
  • Ukraine’s armed forces recently established a Canadian-Ukrainian battalion. With the blessing of Ottawa, 500 Canadians have reportedly joined the fight against Russia’s illegal invasion.
  • Canada’s ambassador coordinated the foreign diplomats that financed and promoted the 2004 Orange Revolution, which promoted pro-NATO presidential candidate Viktor Yushchenko. The lead group in organizing the Orange Revolution, Pora, received US$30,000 from the Canadian embassy, which was its first donation. After a remarkably partisan speech by a supposedly neutral election observer, Liberal Toronto MP Boris Wrzesnewskyj, the Orange Revolution crowd chanted “CA-NA-DA” and in subsequent days the Maple Leaf appeared at protests.
  • Canadian election observers played an important role in the Orange Revolution. Since 2004 “Canada is the only country known to send a bilateral election observer mission to” a country halfway across the world. They have been doing so in parallel with the ultranationalist Ukrainian Canadian Congress (UCC).
  • Canada was the first western country (after neighbouring Poland) to recognize Ukraine’s independence.
  • Canada was the first western country to offer Ukraine credit after independence.
  • The currency Ukraine used after independence was printed in Canada.
  • In the early 1990s Canadian advisers, many from the Ukrainian community, were assigned to positions within Ukrainian ministries and agencies.
  • Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland’s mother, Halyna Chomiak Freeland, helped draft the country’s inaugural constitution.
  • Canadians have dominated the Ukrainian World Congress, which was set up as an anti-Soviet organization 55 years ago.
  • The grandson of nationalist icon and Nazi collaborator, Steven Bandera, is a prominent Canadian journalist. Even though Steve Bandera has justified his grandfather’s role in violence against Poles and Jews during World War II, major Canadian outlets have published his writing on Ukraine.
  • Set up in 1976, the Canadian Institute of Ukrainian Studies at the University of Alberta was the world’s second Ukrainian studies programs. It was established with funding from individuals closely associated with the UCC.
  • The Canadian Institute of Ukrainian Studies hosts the Holodomor Research and Education Consortium and numerous monuments across Canada celebrate an important element of Ukrainian nationalist mythology. In 2008 the Canadian Parliament labelled the early 1930s famine, which left millions dead, a genocide. But millions also died in other parts of the Soviet Union in the early 1930s after droughts and collectivization of land. In a sign of Canadian fanaticism, the Winnipeg Free Press editorial board argued in “The message to you Mr. Yanukovych” that Stephen Harper was the real Ukrainian nationalist, not the elected president of Ukraine, because of the Canadian prime minister’s promotion of a particular understanding of the Holodomor. Last year Justin Trudeau released a “Statement by the Prime Minister on Holodomor Memorial Day” that noted: “In 1932 and 1933, the Soviet regime of Joseph Stalin orchestrated a deliberate famine — a genocide against the Ukrainian people — to impose total control over Ukraine, destroy the will of the people, and erase their identity.”
  • Canada has promoted “a Euro-Atlantic orientation for Ukraine”, noted Harper. In practice this has meant drawing Ukraine away from its neighbour with which it has shared significant economic, cultural and linguistic ties.

Canada’s policy towards Ukraine is rooted in the centuries old Great Game struggle over Central Asia and Eastern Europe. Much of the British garrison in Canada left for Crimea during the 1853-56 war. Many Canadians also volunteered for British units fighting Russia. Between 1917 and 1919 six thousand Canadian troops invaded Russia and throughout the 1920s and 1930s Ottawa worked to isolate Moscow. After World War II an Iron Curtain descended and throughout the 1990s and 2000s Canada pushed to expand NATO to Russia’s doorstep. US officials like former vice-president Dick Cheney have talked about breaking up the Russian Federation while President Joe Biden recently said, “for God’s sake, this man [Vladimir Putin] cannot remain in power.”

Canada has long used its influence in Ukraine to increase tensions with Russia. To make sense of Russia’s illegal invasion, one must take this into account.

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