Why Canada stands with Ukraine and what it is doing to help

Economic and non-lethal military aid comprise Canada’s cautious approach — but that could soon change

From the start of the Ukraine crisis, Canada has been one of the country’s staunchest supporters. Prime Minister Stephen Harper has condemned, in turn, the killing of protesters at Maidan, Russia’s occupation and annexation of Crimea, its move into eastern Ukraine, and its “slow motion” invasion which continues to this day.

Harper was thrust into the international spotlight in November for telling Russian President Vladimir Putin at the Group of 20 summit in Australia to “get out of Ukraine.” He also said it was important to keep the pressure on Russia, no matter how long it takes, until Crimea is returned to Ukrainians. Failing to do so, he added, would only whet Russia’s appetite for similar aggression. While he has vowed to “never accept the illegal occupation of Ukraine by Russia,” Canada’s prime minister has been tight-lipped about whether Canada could give Ukraine weapons and other lethal military aid to fight Kremlin-backed insurgents in the Donbas and its surrounding area. This, however, could change, as Minsk-2 continues to unravel owing to infractions by Russia and the rebels it arms.

Ukraine’s deputy foreign minister says the country is preparing for a full-scale war against Russia and wants Canada to help by supplying lethal weapons and the training to use them. Vadym Prystaiko, who until last year was Ukraine’s ambassador to Canada, says the world must not be afraid of joining Ukraine in a fight against a nuclear power.

In an interview Feb. 21 with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC), Prystaiko said the ceasefire brokered by Germany and France is not holding. “We see that they are not stopping,” he said, suggesting the fight was heading south to the port of Mariupol. “They are taking more and more strategic points.”

Jason Kenney, Canada’s Minister of Defence, said in response that Canada doesn’t have large stockpiles of weapons to give, though it could acquire some from other vendors and then supply Ukraine. The backrooms will be buzzing with contingencies and scenarios, while pollsters will soon be gauging public support for such action. At the same time, Ukraine’s National Security and Defense Council is appealing to the United Nations and European Union to deploy a peacekeeping mission in Ukraine’s southeast region. Given its strong reputation in peacekeeping, having pioneered the concept during the Suez Crisis of 1956, Canada could also assist in this way. When the United Kingdom, France and Israel invaded Egyptian territory, Lester Pearson, as Canada’s ambassador to the UN, suggested the creation of a UN Emergency Force to police that area, thus permitting the invading nations to withdraw with a minimum loss of face. For his efforts, Pearson won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1957.

But given Russia’s initial refusal to permit peacekeepers in the region, it appears the more likely course for the West is that of providing lethal defensive weaponry to help Ukraine repel rebel/Russian advances and increase the cost to Russia of continued aggression. In November, Canada provided $11 million in non-lethal aid including cold weather clothing, night vision goggles, and medical training, including a mobile field hospital, aid welcomed by soldiers on the front lines. Last fall, President Petro Poroshenko thanked Canadians while visiting Ottawa for their support, but also came seeking sophisticated surveillance aid for his army. This was declined.

The United States has also been declining Ukrainian requests for lethal military aid, providing last November $52 million in materials similar to those of Canada, and since then the total has risen to $120 million. Europe, likewise, has been reluctant to go the lethal aid route, focusing instead of diplomatic efforts, which now appear exhausted.

In “What the West Can And Should Do For Ukraine,” the European Leadership Network argues for a “broader effort” beyond military aid and sanctions, which have failed to deter the Russian decision-makers but hurt the Russian people and Europe. Further sanctions, it fears, could create a failed state with nuclear weapons. Also in need of attention and help, it says, are reforms, economic development and anti-corruption efforts.

This is consistent with Canada’s multi-pronged policy on Ukraine. Most recently, Canada’s Trade Minister Ed Fast on Jan. 26 in Kyiv announced plans to provide $52 million to support dairy and grain production. And talks about a free trade agreement between Canada and Ukraine continue. “We discussed the outlook for signing a free trade agreement between our countries,” said Ukrainian Economic and Development and Trade Minister Aivaras Abromavicius, an investment banker. “A few sensitive aspects remain. Signing this agreement would help to increase trade with Canada and help increase investment.” The volume of bilateral trade between the two countries increased sharply in 2014 over 2013. According to the State Statistics Service of Ukraine, it amounted to $218.6 million USD, representing a 41 per cent surge in goods from Canada, while Ukraine sent 32 per cent more product to Canada in 2014 than in 2013.

In addition, Canada has been working on bilateral assistance to help Ukraine create a computerized land registry, both to assist the development of agriculture and to discourage illegal land transfers. This $1-million program is a skills and information transfer from professors at Vancouver Island University to those at the University of Kyiv and the Institute of Geography and the National Academy of Sciences. Staff there would then pass along the mapping techniques to the Ukrainian civil service. After nine years as prime minister, Harper is a respected member of the Group of Seven, while Canada is a founding member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, which took part in the fight for Kosovo, Afghanistan, and, most recently, Libya. Winston Churchill called Canada the “aerodrome of democracy” during the Second World War because of its network of training facilities for Allied pilots (one of whom was the author’s father, a Halifax bomber pilot who flew 34 operations over Nazi Germany and occupied France in 1944).

With a population of 35 million, only a tenth the size of the United States, Canada is a middle power, more known for its “honest broker” image than its military clout. But this similarity to Ukraine’s population of some 40 million, plus its vast plains, snowy winters and 1.2 million people of Ukrainian descent, make it strongly similar to Ukraine in many key ways, and sympathetic to the struggles of Ukrainians.

Canada’s public life boasts many stars of Ukrainian heritage, such as musician Randy Bachman, astronaut Roberta Bondar, politicians Ray Hnatyshyn (former governor general) and Roy Romanow (former premier of Saskatchewan), TV show host Alex Trebek and hockey players Bill Barilko, Mike Bossy, Dale Hawerchuk and Wayne Gretzky.

Ukrainian immigrants came by the thousands in the early years of the 20th century to clear and farm the rugged land in central Manitoba and Saskatchewan which today boasts proud and successful ethnic-Ukrainian communities such as Dauphin. Without such strong and skilled farmers, Canada would not be the prosperous and successful country it is today, since agriculture was a foundation stone of its early development and continues to be an important part of its economy, with the grandsons and granddaughters of those early settlers continuing, in many cases, to work the land.

The blood is thick, therefore, between Ukraine and Canada, as it is between the U.S. and Canada.

If the U.S. decides, as is possible and even likely, to follow the advice of Steven Pifer and other foreign policy experts to provide defensive weaponry to Ukraine, then Canada and some European states such as Poland are almost sure to follow. Such weapons as anti-tank and anti-mortar systems are not an offensive threat to Moscow but would be of assistance to the Ukrainian army in its bid to prevent the loss of further territory, following fall of Debaltseve in mid-February.

Pifer, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institute and a former Ambassador to Ukraine, supports providing $1 billion in military aid to Ukraine this year and each of the next two. He, Strobe Talbott and six other security experts collaborated to produce the recent study Preserving Ukraine’s Independence, Resisting Russian Aggression: What the United States and NATO Must Do. “For the West,” Pifer wrote in the Washington Post, “the issue goes beyond Ukraine. Russia has torn up the rule book that maintained peace, stability and security for almost 70 years, and it has now used force to change borders. If the West does not push back, it could face challenges, even armed challenges, from Russia elsewhere that require far more costly responses,” referring to Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, NATO’s Baltic states.

The danger is that such action could trigger an escalation on the Russian side as well. Former secretary of state Henry Kissinger and others warn of escalation and a possible nuclear war, if the West slides further into the conflict and confronts Russia directly. Russia has thousands of nuclear warheads aimed at Western Europe and the U.S., while the U.S. could devastate Russia with Trident II missiles from a few of its Ohio-class submarines. This stand-off called MAD (Mutual Assured Destruction) kept heads cool during the Cold War; whether it will continue to do so remains to be seen.

Pifer is concerned that continued inaction carries more risks to the West in terms of conventional war than the measures he supports. He encourages the U.S. to approach fellow NATO member states about helping Ukraine, though this has almost certainly been done. It is in Canada’s military and political tradition to assist democratic states facing military invasion, as its roles in the First and Second World Wars and the Korean War attest. Canada is currently active in fighting Islamic extremists, with jet fighters deployed to help combat ISIS, while Canadians fought and 158 died as part of the West’s long effort in Afghanistan. Boosting aid to Ukraine isn’t out of the question, and would fit into this foreign policy paradigm.

Prime Minister Harper was the first Group of Seven leader to visit Kyiv after the crisis began and only one to attend Poroshenko’s inauguration last June. As Harper told the Ukrainian president during his visit to Canada in September, “For Canadians, with our deep connections to the Ukrainian people, this is not to us just a matter of international law or political principle, this is a matter of kinship, this is a matter of family, this is personal and we will stand by you.”

War stirs Ukraine’s youth to action

KYIV – While voting statistics show political engagement among youth in Canada, the United States and parts of Europe is declining, the same cannot be said of Ukraine. Maybe what Canada needs is a nasty little foreign invasion on its eastern flank to stir greater interest among its young people in politics and the country’s future. It sure seems to be working in Ukraine.

A rich blend of teens and twenty-somethings assembled with a core group of 40- to 70-year-olds on Maidan or Independence Square in downtown Kyiv last Sunday, as speaker after speaker criticized the government’s handling of the war in the Donbas or exhorted citizens to put their patriotism into action by saving energy and supporting their soldiers with donations of food, clothes and money.

And this happens almost every weekend.

“We are standing on the very place it all began,” an opposition speaker declares, alluding to the revolution last winter that saw the departure of former president Viktor Yanukovich, accused of corruption and close ties to Russia. “Take off your hats and give a minute’s silence for the fallen,” and everyone does, including 15-year old Ihor Dykun and three of his peers.

Dykun says he and his friends are involved because the burden of protecting the state from Russia’s soldiers and the separatist rebels on the eastern border, which lately has exploded into more deadly warfare in places like Debaltese, will fall to them in a few short years. As well, he says, they soon must grapple with the corruption and enormous debt that also threatens the welfare of Ukrainians.

“It’s our country, it’s our life, it’s our soldiers, it’s our brothers,” he says. “We are children but we can also do something – we can write letters to the soldiers, save energy, wear Ukrainian flags and symbols,” as his friends nod in agreement. “I think in Ukraine there are a lot of teenagers like us who really interested in politics.”

Nearby, 21-year-old Helena Vigowskaja, dressed like Bugs Bunny to lure people into paying her for a picture, listens carefully to what the speakers – opposition members, civil society activists, soldiers from the east – say.

Ihor Dykun, 15, right, and his friends at a political rally Sunday in downtown Kyiv.
Ihor Dykun, 15, right, and his friends at a political rally Sunday in downtown Kyiv.

“Every Sunday they talk about the things they want,” she says. “More changes. Our Ukrainian money is down, down, down. The cost of products is up, up, up, and people don’t like this. If we want to integrate with Europe we must have higher wages. It’s bad. People here have a very hard life. And this is only one of a number of problems.”

Other young people have starker links to the war. Eighteen-year-old Andrey Kalinchenko’s father is fighting there and he himself is a “volunteer,” meaning a civilian who devotes many hours to helping accumulate, package and convey food and other materials to the men and women at the front, since the government is unable to supply them sufficiently.

His father, he says, was fighting in Debaltseve but now is in hospital. In recent weeks dozens of soldiers have been injured or killed in intensified fighting which has seen the rebels take additional turf in the oblast of Donetsk.

Katya Konta, 30, married and the mother of a little boy, says that before the war “we weren’t interested” in politics “but today we have war, so we must.” She is also a volunteer who has traveled east more than 10 times.

“Tomorrow we have the funeral of a very, very close friend,” she says, pausing and tearing up. “Ivan was 37. He was killed in Luhansk on 29 of January. A sniper (got him). He was a very good friend, a good man. He had two sons, a wife, and he was very popular in our town, Fastov. Everything I can, I do.”

Bureaucrats denying soldiers injury status

ARTEMIVSK, Ukraine – Bureaucratic stonewalling is hurting the morale of Ukraine’s fighting men and women by denying their rights, injured soldiers have charged. Some are even taking photos of their deployment to prove their involvement to disbelieving officials.

 “The government does nothing for the volunteers,” said a soldier, 25, who was ill and on antibiotics. When his friend was shot and injured by a sniper he couldn’t get status as a casualty of anti-terrorist operations, which affects his ability to get benefits.

His brother, serving in the 95th Brigade, was advised to take photographs as proof of his war service. “The bureaucrats won’t help the men who are fighting,” he said.

Another problem is a lack of rotation. A man with a head wound said “the same people who are here for months get 20 days off and then have to return to the war. This is not fair. Others do not go to the war at all.”

The bed, helmet and kit bag of one of the soldiers alleging some of their officers are betraying them.
The bed, helmet and kit bag of one of the soldiers alleging some of their officers are betraying them.

The three, who refused to give names or be photographed for fear of punishment from the army, spoke to a Canadian journalist and his Ukrainian interpreter who were placed in their room recently at the regional hospital here while traveling with volunteers.

One of them had been injured that afternoon after the turret of a large gun on an armored vehicle swung unexpectedly and struck him, which he attributed to officer error; he bled from the ear and wears a bandage around his head.

This city of 78,000 is about 88 kilometres north of Donetsk, where fighting has raged over control of its airport, despite the Sept. 5th ceasefire. The United Nations Human Rights Office reports that at least 3,517 civilians and Ukrainian soldiers have died in the war since April. Since the ceasefire, 49 Ukrainian army servicemen have been reported killed and 242 wounded.

Normally, soldiers are not allowed to speak to the press unless officers are present.

The soldiers also said that some of their senior officers were selling information about their whereabouts to the enemy, but this could not be confirmed. They said many of their peers have died when shelled by separatists after their coordinates were sold.

One soldier said evidence of this is that on one occasion the men refused to stop as scheduled, and proceeded on. Later, the place they would have been was shelled.

The hospitalized soldiers also said the separatists have superior weapons to their own outdated guns, and this was mentioned in the report by the UN, its sixth about the war: “In a number of areas, Ukrainian armed forces reported being bombarded by the armed groups with advanced weaponry.”

The injured men described the tactics of the separatist rebels who, according to the report, are assisted by 3,000 to 4,000 Russian soldiers: “First they fire their artillery. Then they send tanks and foot soldiers. A new shell comes right down onto the trenches,” and sends shrapnel far and wide, injuring and killing, the head-wound man said.

One of the injured men said that since they lack winter clothing and other equipment, the Ukrainian army may have to shut down operations for the winter. He had to buy most of his own gear, such as body armor and helmet.

The third soldier said: “This is the bad side of the war. A journalist came to film the soldiers but the commander did all the talking. The soldiers did not have a chance to complain….And the media does not want to reveal this information.”

Mr. Bird is a Canadian journalist.

Volunteers dedicated to serving Ukrainian troops

DEBALTSEVE, Ukraine — The familiar thump! thump! thump! of shelling a few kilometers away is suddenly broken by the staccato rat-a-tat-tat-tat! of automatic gunfire. We all stop, crouch a little, and look around.

“That is a new sound,” says Arkady Nesterenko, our TV/radio journalist companion from Belarus.

We all laugh. He’s right, the gunfire is a new sound, and a troubling one. It means our 700-kilometre journey from Kyiv to this area has taken us deeper toward the fighting most of us have only seen on TV or the internet.

The five of us — two volunteers bringing supplies to Ukrainian troops, two journalists and a journalist/interpreter — are just outside this town of Debaltseve in Donetsk oblast, near the border with the region of Luhansk. Dusk is descending like a comforting quilt, obscuring the nearby tank, concrete barriers, sandbagged bunker and armed Ukrainian soldiers as they check our papers on this rural road. We have been through this many times before. But the checkpoints now are closer together, the inspections tougher, to control the movement of people and materials.

Volunteer Sergey unloads some potatoes for Ukrainian troops on Saturday.
Volunteer Sergey unloads some potatoes for Ukrainian troops on Saturday.

Our driver and co-leader is Sergey Golub, a 45-year-old former staff sergeant in the Soviet army. Tall, lanky and likeable, he looks like a movie star and drives like Mario Andretti. Serious about helping the soldiers, he nevertheless likes a joke. After inviting me to drive the van for a while, he quips: “We have a saying in Ukraine: the driver pays for the gas.”

Sergey and his friend Valerii, who shares the driving and owns this 2010 Opel Vivaro CDTI van, are veterans of the EuroMaidan Revoluton in Kyiv last winter, when hundreds of thousands of people demanded democracy and rule of law in Ukraine and closer ties to the European Union. A man was shot and killed beside Sergey Feb. 20, when numerous protesters fell from gunfire, believed to be from either state security personnel or Russian snipers in high-rise apartments.

The demonstrations by all ages and sectors of Ukrainian society (they were started by students) prompted former president Viktor Yanukovych to flee to Russia, and Sergey was pleased. Like many here, he reviles the man for his corruption (padding his own pockets and those of friends and wasting public money) and for turning away from an association agreement with the European Union, seen as the lynchpin for progress in this debt-ridden state. Yanukovych was taking Ukraine closer into Moscow’s prickly embrace when the people said no.

Sergey and Valerii’s joy at his departure was short-lived, for the separatist unrest in this region began shortly after the president fled, and it soon became an armed conflict with the army. But the army here is not like Canada’s, where the government supplies most of the things a soldier needs. Here, the many volunteer battalions, and even to a degree the conscripted ones, must provide much of their own food, weapons, and clothing.

This is where Sergey, Valerii and hundreds of other brave people found a new raison d’etre: collecting, packaging and delivering tonnes of materials monthly for the soldiers at the front. These include vital medical supplies such as painkillers for local hospitals flush with the injured.

Some volunteers, like Sergey and Valerii, work on their own, establishing personal military and civilian contacts to keep the flow of supplies moving. This trip is their 14th journey east.

Others serve through established groups such as Narodnye Tyl (which roughly translated means “People’s Support”). Co-founders Roman Siuieyu and Georgi Tuka found space in Kyiv and set up an office and supply depot. It delivers three to four van or truck loads of clothing, army gear (such as five bullet-proof Kevlar helmets from a Ukrainian ex-pat in the U.S.) and medical supplies to the troops each week. About 30 volunteers serve here. Donations of money and materials come in from all over the world but mainly Europe and North America, and chiefly via Facebook. “I cannot imagine not doing this,” says Julia Goncharova, who manages the group’s medical donations and works 12-hour days. “The soldiers call us angels; they say they wouldn’t survive without us.”

"This tank will no longer do any damage."
“This tank will no longer do any damage.”

Back at the checkpoint, Sergey makes his case to the soldier. “We are volunteers,” he tells the armed young man inspecting his papers as another round of thump! thump! thump! reverberates in the distance.

“Do you have any warm clothes?”

“Yes,” Sergey says, “we will get you some.”

He and Valerii go to the back of the van and dispense gloves, toques, socks – and a large warm coat. The soldier, who looks about 19, smiles in gratitude and soon three others mill about and inspect the precious winter attire. It is cold even now, in mid-October, near freezing.

The soldier says thanks, returns our papers and passports, and moves us along.

Valerii also sits up front, with little Arkady, 31, between them. He works for Belsat TV, which operates from Poland but is run by people from Belarus. In the back are myself, a Canadian freelance reporter, and my invaluable Ukrainian interpreter/fixer, Ievgenii Sinielnikov, 27, a businessman and former medical researcher and PhD student who studied in Finland before the EU cut his funding. Ievgenii got a big break there when asked to interview Finland’s foreign minister.

Valerii, a salesman and solid type who likes to smoke, cracks a joke and chuckles with the rest of them. It is too much for Ievgenii to translate every exchange, and I don’t ask for this one. Besides, the meaning is clear in any language: relief that we passed another barricade without incident and helped a few more men.

This scenario is often repeated. Only the faces change, and the circumstances.

Twenty minutes earlier we had come across a heavily damaged bridge over a railway. Somehow Sergey maneuvered the van across it, and I opened the side door and took two photos as we passed, not knowing there was a checkpoint ahead. The soldiers there were curt and suspicious, ordering us out of the van and giving Sergey a hard time over a multi-tool he carries. “It is a handy tool!” he says. “Look, we are volunteers, and these men are journalists. You can see the PRESS sign in our window.”

“This photo of a bomb-damaged bridge made things difficult at the next checkpoint.”

After some delay and hassle in the cold we are finally permitted to proceed. Valerii turns in his seat and looks at me over his left shoulder. “It is because you took pictures from the moving van,” he says.

“That is my job,” I reply. “That is why I am here.”

As darkness becomes complete, the high-beam lights of our red Opel reveal pothole after pothole. The van bounces and careers as Sergey speeds over the broken pavement. Sleep is impossible because of the rough ride.

“I know why the rebels are fighting,” I tell Ievgenii. “They want better roads.”

He smiles at the attempt at a joke. But it is only partly a joke. One of the separatists’ complaints is that the people in this region pay taxes but don’t see the benefits they desire. Bad roads, failing infrastructure, lack of other amenities – these are the things that hit home when people don’t feel part of a national fabric. When Ukraine became independent in 1991 it retained the centralized authority of the Soviet era in an effort to build a strong new state. But the cost has been dissatisfaction in some of the outlying regions, just as certain parts of Canada still complain about insufficient federal funding.

It doesn’t help that many of the people here have friends and family living across the border in nearby Russia. Propaganda from Russia says their lives would be better if they rejoined the motherland. Ukraine was once an important part of the Soviet Union, rich in coal and agricultural products, so the ties of culture, ethnicity, language and history are strong.

At 9:30 p.m. we roll into the city of Artemivsk, population 78,000. We are just north of the city of Donetsk, where fighting over control of the airport makes regular headlines.

Artemivsk is a beautiful old city, a cultural centre, I learn later on the internet. But now all I see are darkened streets, modest brick houses, bleak metal roofing glinting in the moon light. We don’t know where we will sleep, and Sergey has an idea. The hospital. It has beds and we will use five of them, in exchange for some medical supplies.

Julia Goncharova with the volunteer group in Kyiv.
Julia Goncharova with the volunteer group in Kyiv.

After a 30-minute wait in the regional hospital’s parking lot we are ushered inside. The four-storey building is decades old but warm. Ievgenii and I are placed in one room, with four Ukrainian soldiers, bandaged and forlorn looking. Our colleagues bunk elsewhere.

I grab the only bed with a multi-colored comforter and place my bags upon it as the soldiers, dressed in camouflage green garb, look on. Then Sergey walks in with three bottles of beer! I had joked earlier about needing a beer, as “Canadians like their beer,” I said, and Ukrainian brews are tasty and cheap.

Ievgenii declines his bottle and I pass it to the nearest soldier, who is blond and 25. He smiles as he opens it. His friends are on antibiotics and cannot drink at the moment, he says. Then he makes a toast as our bottles clink.

“To the war ending soon,” he says.


Mr. Bird is a Canadian journalist and former staff writer with the Winnipeg Free Press.

Exclusive: An interview with a Chechen commander fighting for Ukraine

DNIPROPETROVSK, Ukraine – The leader of the Chechen volunteer battalion here says Canada, the United States and other western nations can help to stop Russian aggression now in the “open war” against Ukraine, or face it later elsewhere.

“If we don’t stop Russia, it will go further,” said Cmdr. Isa Munajev, a veteran of the Chechen wars of the 1990s who now serves in the Ukrainian army. He suggested Estonia and Latvia will be the next countries Russia will attack. About 3,000 to 4,000 Russian soldiers are among those fighting with separatist rebels in the east of Ukraine, the United Nations has reported.

Munajev was interviewed recently 50 kilometres behind the lines at the headquarters of his group, called the International Peacekeepers Battalion. About 10 tents house the group’s soldiers here, and it has people in two other locations as well.

Cmdr. Isa Munajev with reporter Bird.
Cmdr. Isa Munajev with reporter Bird.

The commander said he is motivated partly by revenge, after the Russians killed some family members in earlier wars, but he also wants to help the Ukrainian people stop Russian-backed separatist aggression.

He said he would like Canada and the United States to enter the fray in eastern Ukraine. “It would be wonderful. It would be unity of the civilized world against the barbarian (Russian President Vladimir) Putin.”

But another officer at a checkpoint in Ukrainian-held territory said this is a local fight that should be fought by local soldiers, though he would welcome material aid from the West. So there is a variety of viewpoints about what should be done going forward.

Despite the Sept. 5 ceasefire agreement, which promises autonomy for the two self-proclaimed republics in Donetsk and Luhansk regions, shelling and skirmishes continue.

Since Ukraine does not belong to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, western countries are not obliged to help it repel aggression. But NATO is concerned about the violence in eastern Ukraine and is seeing an increasing number of flights of Russian military aircraft over the Baltic states, which are NATO members.

An Oct. 8 report from the UN’s Human Rights Office outlines rape, beatings, mock-murders and murders of Ukrainian civilians by “armed groups” in the war-torn areas.

“It is true,” said Munajev, who blamed the rebels and Russians for the atrocities, though the report says elements on both sides are culpable. “I have been here for two months and the same things happened in Chechnya (when Russian troops invaded in the 1990s). I hope the world community will stand up to this devil, Putin. We can defeat him only together.”

Tents used by the Chechen battalion.
Tents used by the Chechen battalion.

Munajev said seven of his men have been injured in recent fighting; he would not reveal the number of dead.

Timur, 21, is an ethnic Chechen who recently graduated with a degree in economics and was living in Germany. “I have seen what the Russians have done to the Chechen people,” Timur said, explaining why he volunteered. “Many of my family have died.”

All of those interviewed spoke through an interpreter.

Another soldier, Valentine, 35, is from Russia. “No other battalion would accept me, and my father was Ukrainian,” he explains. He was trained by the Russian army.

The commander said Russian forces are three kilometers closer to this base than they were last week. “The Russians are coming here, step by step,” he said. The HQ is in a field near a line of trees used for firewood to cook and heat the tents.

“I hope the world will find out the truth. It’s a war, an open war against the Ukrainian nation and state,” said Munajev.

The Russian president’s image is used for target practice.
The Russian president’s image is used for target practice.

[hr] Mr. Bird is a Canadian freelance reporter.

Protestants persecuted in rebel-held Luhansk

LVIV, Ukraine — Protestants and pro-Ukraine residents in the war-torn areas of eastern Ukraine are being persecuted by separatist rebels and forced to flee, says a man from the Luhansk area.

“The separatists say all Protestant churches are American spies, so there is religious oppression,” said Yurii Radchenko, 46, from the town of Zymohiria. Radchenko, a Protestant, said he was shot at twice in separate incidents but emerged unscathed.

“All the religious communities have been threatened except the Russian Orthodox. My property was taken and we have nothing,” he said. Others, including a recent report from the United Nations Human Rights Office, confirm that looting is being done by rebels and their supporters.

“That is the problem. I have lost everything in eastern Ukraine,” said Radchenko. “Those who remain undergo threats, oppression and are beaten up. That is the tragedy. If the separatists learn that people are pro-Ukraine they suffer a lot. It is like cleansing. Either you leave or you suffer.”

Yurii Radchenko says he has been shot at, his houses stolen.
Yurii Radchenko says he has been shot at, his houses stolen.

Radchenko and other Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) spoke to a reporter recently through an interpreter at a former military compound in the town of Vynnyky, east of Lviv. About 200 men, women and children are being sheltered and fed there by The Good Samaritan Protestant Church, said a Canadian, Roman Yereniuk, who is helping to fund the effort.

“Many Protestants are not tolerated by the Russian Orthodox Church in Ukraine,” he said. “The other two Orthodox churches have good ecumenical relations with the Protestants. Many have escaped from the east to the west.”

Some 375,000 IDPs have fled from the violence in the east and are living largely off their savings and the largesse of friends and family across Ukraine, the United Nations Human Rights Office reported Oct. 8. The report confirms that persecution is taking place.

Some of them near Lviv arrived four months ago, others more recently, said one of their leaders, Elena Pavlenko. All had similar stories of fearing for their lives as a result of either direct threats or concerns about being caught in the crossfire between Ukrainian and separatist forces.

In a recent article in Ukraine’s The Day newspaper, Mykola Siry, a senior researcher at the Koretsky Institute of State and Law, said “we are talking about systemic torture of people in Luhansk and Donetsk oblasts, intentional murders. It is a form of intimidation of the whole population.”

In the Middle East, ISIS is attacking and killing civilian populations because of their beliefs, and the international community is taking military action. But violence is also happening to civilians in eastern Ukraine, where the West is avoiding engagement.

For Pavlenko, fears arose when the separatists placed missile launchers beside her house. The noise was deafening, she said, and they feared being bombed by their own side. Her husband arranges the refugees’ humanitarian aid, and they have a small child. The rebels, a mix of local men resenting the centralized control of Kyiv and foreigners she said are from Russia, are shelling the airport about eight kilometers away in a bid to force out the Ukrainian forces in control.

Elena Pavlenko, a leader of the group, talks to a reporter.
Elena Pavlenko, a leader of the group, talks to a reporter.

Ukrainian forces and pro-Russian separatist fighters recently marked one month since the signing of a Kremlin-backed truce with one the most heated battles of the six-month war in Donetsk. Ukraine said 75 soldiers and civilians have been killed since the Sept. 5 cease-fire. President Petro Poroshenko is hoping the shaky truce, signed as part of a peace plan, will hold together for parliamentary elections Oct. 26.

Pavlenko said many soldiers have died in the fighting, noting a “massive burial site” near the airport. About 400 civilians have also died from Luhansk, to her knowledge. Most people have fled, she said, and those who remain stay inside. Thousands of IDPs have also gone to Russia.

Protestants make up about 2.4 per cent of the Ukrainian population, but Ukraine has been called the “Bible belt” of Eastern Europe and a hub of evangelical church life and missions. Most people are Ukrainian Orthodox (40 per cent), Russian Orthodox (30 per cent), or Ukrainian Greek Catholic (14 per cent). Roman Catholics account for 1.7 per cent of the population, Moslems 0.6 per cent and Jews, 0.2.

While the loss of Crimea in March appeared to reduce tensions between the Orthodox churches – one pro-Moscow prelate even denounced Putin as a “bandit” – bitter divisions remain.

Mr. Radchenko, who worked for a non-profit organization that helped drug addicts and former prison inmates, said pastors have been tortured. He gave the example of one who was injured and taken to a hospital, where separatists were also being treated. When they heard him proselytize they informed their leaders, who hauled the man from the hospital, beat him up, and left him for dead in a forest. Parishoners found him and he is recovering, Radchenko said.

That’s when he asked friends to find a place for him and his family – wife, four children and mother in law. His wife and kids arrived here four months ago, but he stayed home until mid-September.

It all began with widespread protests in Ukraine last November when former President Viktor Yanukovych rejected a trade agreement with the European Union in favor of a deal with Russia. He was forced from office in February, as most Ukrainian people support ties with the EU as essential to cleaning up a corrupt system. Ukraine is also deeply in debt, and Yanukovych was despised for lining his own pockets and those of his family and friends. But his departure displeased the Kremlin and led to armed rebellion by pro-Russian rebels in the east and Russia’s annexation of Crimea.

As a 17-year-old student, Valentine, said at the monument on Maidan or Independence Square, “Russia wanted to control us, hence the fighting in the east.”

Another man who fled from the east, Vasiliy Klimov, 40, who has four daughters and a wife, said things got quickly out of hand at his home of Krasnodon.

“When the war began, local people who formed the bandit groups took weapons, from I don’t know where, and captured the police station, and it surrendered and joined them. Next these separatists blew up the customs building on the border with Russia.”

Klimov said it was frightening to go into town because the armed rebels without uniforms were openly stopping cars and people. “It was scary to say something that would provoke them. Some friends heard people scream from the cars, they heard someone shoot. That’s why we packed up and left for Crimea in June.”

But the family left Crimea Sept. 22 because “there is uncertainty in the air and some people expect the war also in Crimea,” on the Black Sea peninsula. It has Russia’s only warm-water port (which it had been leasing) and is home to its Black Sea fleet. “Crimea is wanted back by local authorities,” Klimov said, “and local Tatars (who are Moslem and more than 10 per cent of the population) are against the annexation of Crimea.”

Vasiliy Klimov with three of his daughters; they fled twice.
Vasiliy Klimov with three of his daughters; they fled twice.

Annexation happened after the March 16 referendum showed 97 per cent support for joining Russia. Even if the voting was rigged, some people say most Crimeans wanted change; others say a majority liked the status-quo. Some Ukrainian people from the Soviet era believe that under Russia their old ways would be better protected.

Like many here, Pavlenko believes the war is rooted partly in Russian President Vladimir Putin’s desire for a land route to Crimea.

Putin has said his concern is to protect ethnic Russians. He has accused Ukrainian troops of acting “like Nazis” in the conflict by targeting residential areas of towns and cities like German troops did in the former Soviet Union during the Second World War.

Propaganda comes from both sides, but much of it is from Russia. Russian military leaders have claimed on TV that only Ukrainian can be spoken in the region, when in fact Russian is freely and legally used. The UN report says propaganda and incitement to hatred are causing tensions in eastern Ukraine that could lead to the region breaking away like Crimea.

Language is a sore point. Ukrainian is the only officially recognized tongue, which tends to hamper rather than build national unity. Many people speak Russian, especially in the cities, while Ukrainian is more common in the country. The interpreter, Ievgenii Sinielnikov, a 27-year-old businessman and former PhD student from a town near Kyiv, said many use a blended Russian-Ukrainian language called “Surzhyk,” after a mix of grain.

Another problem is corruption in the legal system: bribery of judges is common.

But the key reason for regional discontent in Sinielnikov’s view is the lack of local control over taxation, spending, and other matters. While countries like Canada have empowered their regions and largely removed the grievances of those in outlying areas, many in the east resent Kyiv’s control of their lives. For them, it smacks of the Soviet Union at its worst.

The month-old ceasefire agreement addresses this concern, as greater autonomy will be granted to the rebel-held areas. But the separatist genie is out of the bottle and will be difficult to stuff back in.


Mr. Bird is touring Ukraine and area. For more about the refugee camp see teenagerfund.org.ua

Cover photo: Orthodox church overlooks a smoke filled Luhansk