Cana­dian em­bassy used as pawn

The Guardian (Charlottetown) - - CANADA - THE CANA­DIAN PRESS

It was one of those events that sim­ply ap­peared and dis­ap­peared dur­ing the bloody, swift-mov­ing events of Ukraine in the win­ter revo­lu­tion of 2014.

Canada’s em­bassy in Kyiv was used as a haven for sev­eral days by anti-gov­ern­ment protesters dur­ing the upris­ing that top­pled the regime of for­mer pres­i­dent Vik­tor Yanukovych.

The Harper gov­ern­ment never fully ac­knowl­edged — dur­ing the up­heaval or since — the depth and ex­tent of the se­cu­rity breach, which has had far-reach­ing im­pli­ca­tions on how Cana­di­ans are per­ceived in the re­gion.

The Cana­dian Press has spent months piec­ing to­gether the events sur­round­ing the ex­tra­or­di­nary in­ci­dent, which started on Feb. 18, 2014 and oc­curred at the height of the vi­o­lent crack­down against pro-Euro­pean protesters.

It be­gan, ac­cord­ing to mul­ti­ple sources in Kyiv and Ot­tawa, when one of the protesters be­ing chased by riot po­lice waved a Cana­dian pass­port at em­bassy se­cu­rity. Once the door was open, the in­di­vid­ual was quickly fol­lowed by other de­mon­stra­tors armed with sticks and paving stones.

Ro­man Waschuk, the cur­rent Cana­dian am­bas­sador in Kyiv, con­firmed the ac­count in a re­cent in­ter­view with The Cana­dian Press.

“I un­der­stand there was a Cana­dian pass­port holder as­so­ci­ated in some way with the group,” said Waschuk, who re­placed Troy Lu­lash­nyk as am­bas­sador in Kyiv last year.

He ac­knowl­edged the protesters were camped in the main lobby for at least a week, which is some­thing nei­ther For­eign Af­fairs nor the Harper gov­ern­ment has ever pub­licly stated.

Waschek also sug­gested no harm came of it.

“From what I was told, it was sev­eral days and they left flow­ers on de­par­ture,” he said.

A host of se­cu­rity im­prove­ments were made in the af­ter­math, but that open­ing of the doors was “a ges­ture de­signed to re­act and to reach out to the peo­ple suf­fer­ing in the tur­moil,” Waschek said.

But some of Canada’s Euro­pean al­lies, speak­ing on back­ground be­cause of the sen­si­tiv­ity of the sub­ject, said the fact protesters were al­lowed to stay for so long and op­er­ate freely made it ap­pear Canada was an ac­tive par­tic­i­pant in regime change, and not just lend­ing morale sup­port.

That was cer­tainly the per­cep­tion of Ukraine’s in­te­rior min­istry, which over­sees the po­lice, na­tional guard and the coun­try’s in­tel­li­gence ser­vices.

Two min­istry of­fi­cials, with knowl­edge of the case and who agreed to meet as long as their iden­ti­ties were not re­vealed, said a crim­i­nal in­ves­ti­ga­tion was opened into the ac­tions of the protesters, but qui­etly dropped af­ter Yanukovych fled to Rus­sia.

They de­scribed an ex­tra­or­di­nary scene of chaos and vi­o­lence out­side of the em­bassy, which is lo­cated in the heart of city im­me­di­ately ad­ja­cent to the Maidan — or in­de­pen­dence — square.

“There wasn’t much of an ob­sta­cle for them to get in. Not much se­cu­rity,” said one of­fi­cial. “Canada was sym­pa­thiz­ing with the protesters, at the time, more than the gov­ern­ment.”

The lobby was used to treat the wounded on the night of Feb. 18 and they were trans­ferred to hos­pi­tal by am­bu­lance amid the vi­o­lence, which in­cluded a mini-van that was stolen by protesters, ac­cord­ing to the of­fi­cials.

It was later found burned, some­thing Ot­tawa hasn’t ac­knowl­edged, they said.

“There was no public state­ment from the Cana­dian side about this, and it’s re­ally in­ter­est­ing what grounds they would use not to say some­thing,” said the sec­ond of­fi­cial.

Mul­ti­ple lay­ers of in­trigue sur­round the oc­cu­pa­tion, which was first re­ported by Rus­sian media as an at­tack on the em­bassy by pro-Rus­sian groups.

A spokesman for then-for­eign af­fairs min­is­ter John Baird ac­knowl­edged, on the day it­self, that protesters were in the re­cep­tion area of the build­ing; they had taken “shel­ter,” and they were “peace­ful and have not caused any dam­age or harm to staff.”

Af­ter the ini­tial re­port, there was si­lence.

The em­bassy was closed and re­mained so through­out the tu­mul­tuous events that cul­mi­nated with Yanukovych flee­ing to Rus­sia on Feb. 22.

How the protesters got in and what hap­pened dur­ing their stay was never fully ex­plained by the Harper gov­ern­ment, which — ac­cord­ing to sources in Ot­tawa — was seized with how to re­spond and what op­tions there might be to end the oc­cu­pa­tion.

In the end, a de­ci­sion was made “at the high­est lev­els” to let events play-out.

If you talk to or­di­nary peo­ple here, aca­demics or even Ukraine’s charge d’af­faires in Ot­tawa, the fact Canada pushed the en­ve­lope isn’t sur­pris­ing. They see it as a nat­u­ral ex­ten­sion of the Harper gov­ern­ment’s bullish rhetoric, and in fact some­thing they’ve come to ex­pect.

“Gen­er­ally speak­ing in Ukrainian public opin­ion, as well in the Ukraine gov­ern­ment of that time, there was a com­mon un­der­stand­ing that Cana­dian sym­pa­thies are on the side of the protesters, pro-Euro­pean, pro-demo­cratic,” Marko Shevchenko said.

Dom­inque Arel, a noted ex­pert on Ukraine at the Univer­sity of Ot­tawa, agreed and said the per­cep­tion that Canada was more than a dis­in­ter­ested by­stander was formed long be­fore the Maidan protests, which erupted in the fall of 2013, turned vi­o­lent.

The fall­out is rarely dis­cussed, but Cana­di­ans are not very pop­u­lar in some quar­ters and oc­ca­sion­ally loathed by pro-Rus­sian Ukraini­ans. Arel said he knows of one in­ci­dent where a Cana­dian jour­nal­ist was briefly de­tained by rebels.

Bob Fowler, a for­mer diplo­mat and se­nior for­eign pol­icy ad­viser to three prime min­is­ters, says the Harper gov­ern­ment has played a dan­ger­ous game and pushed the coun­try’s in­volve­ment in Ukraine to the point where Canada has be­come a dis­rup­tive in­flu­ence for al­lies who have more at stake in man­ag­ing the con­fronta­tion with nu­clear-armed Rus­sia and are try­ing to keep the con­flict from erupt­ing into all-out war.

“We’re not the con­sid­ered, in­tel­li­gent play­ers that we used to be,” said Fowler. “We have been all mouth and no brain.”

The em­bassy in­ci­dent is a small but per­fect snap­shot of what Canada’s for­eign pol­icy has be­come, said Fowler.

“I would ar­gue we have very lit­tle cred­i­bil­ity within NATO. Of course, our friends in NATO aren’t go­ing to say that pub­licly, but the peo­ple within NATO who are rel­e­vant to our dis­cus­sion, they know about Cana­dian mil­i­tary ca­pa­bil­i­ties.

“They know about what we could and could not do and they know our pos­tur­ing is ut­terly vac­u­ous.”


A pro­tester throws a Molo­tov cock­tail dur­ing clashes with po­lice in cen­tral Kyiv, Ukraine, early Satur­day, Jan. 25, 2014. Canada’s em­bassy in Kyiv was used as a haven for sev­eral days by anti-gov­ern­ment protesters dur­ing the revo­lu­tion that top­pled the regime of for­mer pres­i­dent Vik­tor Yanukovych.

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