In Digest, Feature Articles, Ukraine

By Scott Taylor, published in his weekly column ‘On Target’ in the Halifax (Canada) Chronicle Herald, July 21, 2015

There was considerable fanfare last week in Ottawa as Prime Minister Stephen Harper hosted his Ukrainian counterpart, Arseniy Yatsenyuk. The centrepiece of the Yatsenyuk visit took place at the scenic Meech Lake, just outside the national capital. It was here that the two leaders announced a recently negotiated free trade agreement that Harper proclaimed would help Ukraine build its economy.

Arseniy Yatsenyuk and Stephen Harper in Ottawa on July 14, 2015 (Canadian Press)

Arseniy Yatsenyuk and Stephen Harper in Ottawa on July 14, 2015 (Canadian Press)

In an unusual twist, only photographers were allowed to record this momentous occasion, while reporters were prohibited from the site. Harper and Yatsenyuk may have looked stately as they walked the grounds at Meech Lake, but the media still quickly deduced that the new free trade agreement does not amount to much of anything.

Trade between Ukraine and Canada totalled a measly $244 million last year. While that number was a sign of the ongoing military and political crisis, bilateral trade between 2011 and 2013 averaged $347 million. When you consider that during the past 12 months, Canada has provided Ukraine with $400 million in low-interest loans, it is easy to see why the July 14 announcement of this “historic” agreement had no impact on domestic stock markets.

The simple fact is that Ukraine is broke. The Ukrainian government has said its public debt is somewhere in the sphere of $70 billion.

Canada’s token low-interest loans and overhyped free trade agreement are therefore just a mere drop in the bucket, with the worst news being that there is still no bottom to that bucket.

Since the ousting of former Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych, the new regime in Kyiv has been dealing with the breakaway self-declared Donetsk People’s Republic as well as the Luhansk People’s Republic in eastern Ukraine. Civil wars are costly in both blood and gold and, of course, there is always the matter of destroyed infrastructure to factor into the economic equation.

Since no reporters were allowed to question Yatsenyuk during his visit to Ottawa, no one got to ask him about the radical developments happening in western Ukraine. Far from being one big happy Ukrainian family, free at last from nasty Russian oppression, it turns out that the movement to oust Yanukovych was actually a disparate collection of fractious elements.

The most militant of those factions are the neo-Nazi militias such as the Right Sector and the Azov Battalion. These groups led the violent riots against Yanukovych’s security forces, and then went on to become the key military component of the new Kyiv regime’s battle to subdue the pro-Russian breakaway republics.

These neo-Nazi groups have never hidden their racist, anti-Semitic and anti-Russian ideology, with many members brazenly sporting swastikas on their helmets. Their combat capability and motivation on the battlefield has set them apart from the average Ukrainian conscript units that have little stomach for fighting their own brethren.

Nevertheless, the presence of neo-Nazis in their midst is an embarrassing reality for Ukraine supporters — of which Canada is the most strident — and for the new Kyiv regime. This all boiled over last week when a Right Sector unit in the western Ukrainian city of Mukachevo attacked police and the security detail of a local politician. In the ensuing gun battle, three people were killed and 13 wounded.

An armed standoff between the Right Sector and government security forces resulted in the neo-Nazis grabbing a six-year-old boy as a hostage. As word spread throughout Ukraine of the incident, other Right Sector militia units mobilized in direct defiance of the Kyiv regime.

Right Sector protesters in Kyiv demanded the resignation of Arsen Avakov, the interior minister, while other neo-Nazi militia units set up checkpoints outside the Ukrainian capital.

In response, President Petro Poroshenko vowed that he would disarm all of the private militias. What Poroshenko did not explain was how his demoralized conscript units are going to apprehend and outfight those neo-Nazi fighters who have already proven their superiority on the battlefield.

An important point to note is that these latest clashes occurred in western Ukraine — the so-called safe areas where our soldiers will be deployed to train Ukrainian troops to battle pro-Russian rebels. In the meantime, it looks like they are getting ready to battle each other.

No wonder Harper didn’t want reporters asking questions.

Scott Taylor publishes Esprit de Corps, a magazine of Canadian military affairs.


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