He killed ten separatists with a grenade, earning a stern reprimand from his commander—or so he tells me. It’s 2018, and I’m in Western Ukraine relaxing after a drink of Kvass, the local rye beverage, with a trio of American ex-military men who volunteered with Ukrainian battalions to fight in the Russian-speaking eastern provinces of the country that have declared independence from Ukraine. The one telling the story doesn’t speak Ukrainian or Russian, but he’s one of many who have come to the area for ideological reasons, or because they enjoy the violence.

Sifting through my memories of this encounter three years later, I don’t know if his story is true or not. But on a certain level, it doesn’t matter. Stories like this one—told by outsiders with a certain view of Ukraine’s so-far slow-burning civil war—have a way of shaping the mentality of the forces on the ground, influencing how they expect the worst of those on the other side, and determining what choices they will make in a environment of fear and panic.

The blare of war news emerging from Eastern Europe over the last few weeks has a similar shaping effect, but on a grander scale. Talk of threats to Ukraine, and an imminent Russian invasion, did not originate with—and do not particularly resonate with—Ukrainians. I’ve spent eleven months in the country covering social movements, and have followed events closely since. Still, it took me a while to appreciate this point.

It dawned on me during a zoom chat this week with Taras Bilous, a whip-smart analyst with wonky charm who’s part of Sotsial’nyi Rukh (“Social Movement”), a socialist, youth-based pro-union movement based in Kiev, the capital of Ukraine. 

Last spring, Bilous explained to me that Russian troop movements near Ukraine’s border resulted in similar media reports. 

Russian soldiers in Crimea in 2014.

For the current crisis, however, the Western media diverged sharply in its coverage.

The present round of escalating tensions was precipitated by Russian troop movements last November. It was Western media sources driving the now-dominant interpretation—that Russia may be preparing a full-scale invasion; it was only belatedly noticed by Ukrainians. 

According to Bilous, Ukrainians only really began to be concerned in the last week when the U.S. and UK began withdrawing embassy staff’s family members from the country. This latter point is matched by another Ukrainian source of mine in Kharkiv. 

I don’t believe this reaction is one of whistling in the dark or naïveté on the part of the Ukrainians. With the experience of close to eight years of conflict behind them, people who live in the country have internalized a recognition of Russian patterns of behaviour and know what to expect. 

By contrast, the build-up of stories about Ukraine in western news outlets since November has taken on a self-catalyzing quality. Publications including the New York Times cited U.S. Intelligence sources affirming that the latest mobilization of troops near Ukraine’s border was a prelude to a possible invasion to capture a “swathe” of Ukraine’s territory. These claims were followed by the release of a declassified intelligence document, reported in a December 3 Washington Post article which talked of a “massive military offensive” by Russia. 

Two weeks later, Russia made public a series of demands of western countries. The most notable: that Ukraine and other former Soviet countries be barred from joining NATO—a callback to a promise made by US officials in the 1990s, which many Russians see as having been broken when Baltic States were admitted to the alliance. Western leaders rejected this demand. 

In recent weeks, Russian troops have continued to amass troops near the Ukraine border, both in Russia proper, and in allied Belarus. The US has placed troops on alert for potential deployment to eastern Europe. Upping the ante on January 22, the UK’s Foreign Office accused Russia of maneuvering to foment a coup inside Ukraine, and named specific Ukrainians that the UK claimed Russia was eyeing as part of an installation of a new Ukrainian president. The Foreign Office did not provide specific evidence for this claim, and the claim’s reliability was cast into doubt in an article in the Guardian. 

All of this has been a striking display of the power of the press. Sensationalist reporting based on claims from US intelligence officials led to a perception of a crisis, creating a demand for more reporting, which itself fueled tensions. The resulting demands and counter-demands by the West and Russia have led to escalations in military posture, and a situation in which leaders of countries with massive nuclear arsenals are under pressure to not appear weak, or back down.

Confirming Bilous’ point, Ukraine’s current President Volodymyr Zelenskiy recently took the US and others to task for “fueling panic.” “I don’t consider the situation now more tense than before,” he told reporters. “There is a feeling abroad that there is war here. That’s not the case.”

A Ukrainian soldier fires during an urban warfare training conducted by Canadian military personnel during Operation UNIFIER in 2015. Photo: Canadian Forces

How Canada wove itself into a regional conflict

“Watch out for adders,” the soldier told me. It was a blistering hot day in 2018, and I’m standing in waist-high grass somewhere in western Ukraine. Soldiers, crouched in stealth positions, fan into the trees. Machine guns ring out ahead of us and adrenaline hits. I run in a crouch, oblivious to the threat of snakes.

A few minutes later, it’s time for a smoke break. Young Ukrainian soldiers tell me about their intensive training schedule, as part of a group of 500 soldiers being mentored by about two hundred Canadians from the Petawawa army base in Ontario. The Ukrainians have just rotated off a tour of duty on the country’s front line in the east, confronting separatists. They will return there once their training here is over. 

Canada has been a significant actor in Ukrainian politics for more than a decade, investing hundreds of millions in civil society and government, while providing military assistance and training.

Ukraine appeared with now-familiar prominence in the Western press in 2004 and 2005, when pro-western political forces, mostly in the country’s ethnic-Ukrainian west, faced off against those with closer ties to Russia, with a base of support in the more Russian-speaking east.

In what was becoming a familiar pattern, a broad array of groups, often benefitting from generous US “democracy promotion” funding and other aid (about $5 billion since 1992) faced off against what was presented in the Western media as a pro-Russian “old guard,” a post-Soviet hangover. Between 2004 and 2009, Canada chipped in a total of $99 million in funding to “sustainable economic growth and democratic development” in Ukraine.

(In 2020, the NED funded a dizzying array of media organizations, business groups, human rights centres, think tanks, cultural and youth groups—with grants ranging from tens to hundreds of thousands of dollars.)

The “Orange Revolution” appeared to be successful in the short term, creating an upwelling of hope for economic opportunity and optimism for democracy. Ukraine’s economy was doing reasonably, with the middle class growing. But in the ensuing years, the same pro-Western government would carry out a wave of privatizations and become mired in corruption scandals. When the 2009 subprime crisis hit, foreign investments in Ukraine were unusually exposed, so the currency plummeted, along with living standards. 

After the pro-western free trade bloc lost popularity, the Russian-aligned forces came back to power, electing Viktor Yanukovych in 2010. In an attempt to block a pending Free Trade Agreement with the west, in 2013 Russia changed customs regulations, eventually stopping all Ukrainian goods from entering Russia. This created an economic crisis, which led Yanukovych to put the Free Trade Agreement on ice.

Mass protests, under the name Maidan—a Persian word for a city square that Ukrainians in Kiev have used since Ottoman times—fueled by the economic malaise but drawing together a diverse group of extreme right, left, and neoliberal forces, took over the capital, eventually forcing Yanukovych into exile. Putin’s Russia reacted by occupying the historic Crimean peninsula. Under Russian military administration, a reported 97 per cent of voters chose to join the Russian Federation.

The following year, Canada’s military collaboration with Ukraine began: a constant presence of 200 rotating troops to train Ukraine’s army and security forces. Since then, Canada’s military aid totalled $700 million. The aid included provision of “non-lethal military gear”.

Burning tires create a wall of smoke during Maidan protests in Kiev in 2014.

In 2014, newly installed pro-West forces teamed up with the International Monetary Fund to impose drastic austerity measures, increasing income taxes and slashing fuel subsidies, which caused broad price inflation.

Canada has a large population of Ukrainian expatriates—1.2 million Canadians report Ukrainian ancestry—and a close alignment with US foreign policy. While it is not the biggest foreign player in Ukrainian affairs, Canada is—excepting the US itself—one of the most aggressive on the “Western” side.

Canada’s training mission is based in the west, away from the fighting. The troops it trains are sent to the country’s eastern provinces of Donetsk and Lugansk, where they battle Russian-backed militias linked to hostile regional governments. In the “Donetsk Peoples’ Republic” which declared independence in 2014, local militias have driven Ukrainian forces out of the city, with 3,000 civilians killed and 13,000 killed in action on both sides.

In Canada, support for escalation against perceived Russian aggression is rapidly gaining steam. Ukrainian flag emojis have proliferated on the Twitter profiles of the country’s pundit class, and politicians have joined in the belligerence. In a statement, Deputy Prime Minister Crystia Freeland declared the conflict to be a “struggle between democracy and authoritarianism.” She wrote this week: “This is a direct challenge to the rules-based international order and an attempt to replace it with a world in which might makes right.” 

US President Biden has ruled out the option of sending troops to fight Russia in Ukraine. Prime Minister Trudeau, when questioned on the matter, did not rule that out. For the moment, there are no stated plans to increase the presence of Canadian Forces in the area.

The basic premise of Canada’s approach is that free trade and closer economic ties with the west are in Ukraine’s interest. Separatists who rejected the free-trade accord, on this account, are seen as Russian dupes with whom one cannot engage in good-faith negotiation. If Canada follows this logic to its conclusion, the only acceptable result is military defeat of the separatists. Whatever the rhetoric, Canada’s stance is one of pursuing the war, not ending it. In that war, the role of extremist groups will grow, while the world’s two largest nuclear arsenals inch closer to direct conflict.

Volunteers with the Azov Battalion salute in 2014.

The Nazi Problem

Childrens’ toys and coats, plastic water jugs, an unpacked suitcase, mattresses. I’m standing ankle-deep in what’s left of a Roma settlement outside Kyiv. On April 20—Hitler’s birthday—in 2018, the residents were assaulted by about 30 young men, some masked, who attacked the shantytown. They slashed belongings with knives, threw stones, sprayed mace, fired a gun, and then burned the homes to the ground.

Attacks by semi-anonymous Nazi groups—usually a group of 20 or more young men—became a fixture of the Ukrainian landscape in the years following the 2014 Maidan uprising. Some of these attacks killed the victims; others brought them close.

Organizers and observers I spoke to in 2018—and remotely since then—say that the far right groups were a tiny presence at the protests. In early 2014, a group like Right Sector had about 150 members—a small minority of the overall protest. However, they were well-organized and, when it came to fighting in the streets, on familiar ground. They raised the morale of the protesters at the time when things were at risk of disintegrating, one left-wing participant told me. After that, they were accepted by the mainstream of the protest, and began to gain more adherents.

When fighting broke out in breakaway provinces in eastern Ukraine, the far-right groups raised their profile further by rushing to the front lines. The Azov Batallion formed in 2014 as a volunteer militia to fight separatists. It earned notoriety when it recaptured Mariupol, a town that had been occupied by a militia of steelworkers, killing several combatants and blowing up an armoured car.

An overtly neo-Nazi group, the Azov Batallion has since been made part of the Ukrainian National Guard, maintaining a distinct identity identifiable by its Nazi symbolism. Soldiers in the battalion are known for their overly feeble attempts to deny their Nazi ideology. One soldier told a Guardian reporter in 2014: ​​”it’s all made up, there are just a lot of people who are interested in Nordic mythology.” The reporter then asked what the soldier’s own political views were. “National socialist,” came the reply.

Early on, Azov battalion members stormed a city council meeting and forced the members to pass a revised budget. A commentary published by Reuters asserted that “Azov and other militias have attacked anti-fascist demonstrations…media outlets, art exhibitions, foreign students and Roma.”

One report cites evidence showing that at least one “in-your-face neo-Nazi” has received training from Canadian forces, and other members of Nazi groups have bragged online about receiving Canadian training. Another report showed that Canadian officers were aware they were meeting with neo-Nazi elements, and were worried about the bad press that could result.

While many human rights groups have called for Canada to use its leverage to force a purge of far-right extremists from the military and positions at the head of key ministries, others fear those elements have become too entrenched. Canada, at any rate, has not taken any apparent steps to use its position to reduce the far right’s influence, preferring to limit its public association with neo-Nazis.

Residents of what would become the breakaway Donetsk Peoples’ Republic register to vote in 2014.

Why there’s a Peoples’ Republic in Donetsk

A pensioner in a three-piece suit walked stiffly to the ballot box. A younger man arrived with a bouquet of flowers. A babushka in a headscarf crossed herself after voting. It was election day in Donetsk in June 2014, and people were out in great numbers to vote on whether or not to form a separate country from Ukraine.

The referendum results—89 per cent in favour of independence, according to local officials—can, and perhaps should, be questioned. But the separatist movement is based on more than manipulative Russian propaganda. Nor is it a simple matter of ethnic allegiance.

Outside the polling station, I ran into three elderly women, clearly close friends—a Greek, a Russian and a Ukrainian. ”I’ve lived all my 70 years here,” the Russian enthused. “How can I not love this country? I speak Ukrainian, and Russian. And now they want to hang me…because western Ukraine wants something different! We lived in peace and quiet, and now this junta has seized power in Kiev and wants to change course”.

“I’m a pure-blooded Ukrainian,” her companion added. “The three of us belong to different nationalities, but we get along”.

One source of profound political differences is regional. Western Ukraine’s economy is heavily based on tourism and agriculture—and broadly stands to gain new investment from closer ties with Europe and North America. Eastern Ukraine’s economy is based on industry—it was metalworkers who initially clashed with the Azov battalion—and stands to lose a great deal from greater tensions with Russia.

Another woman out to vote in the 2014 referendum blamed Maidan for the separation. “The east kept quiet for a long time. In the beginning people weren’t asking for separation; they wanted federalism inside Ukraine. Why didn’t Kiev listen?”

A young mother I spoke with became passionate while her daughter protested the length of our conversation with waves of a sand shovel. “They [the government] acted in such a way that they’ve lost the Crimea, and lost Donbas, and Lugansk, and they refuse to see this. It’s a chain reaction! [Next it’ll be] Dnipopetrovsk. And Kharkiv. And Odessa. And it’s their own fault. They’re the ones that tore the country apart, not us.”

While most people I spoke to that day in Donetsk were pro-separation, there nonetheless was a substantial block of alienated voters in the east who under some circumstances would prefer to stay part of Ukraine. However, the Kiev government—confident of western backing—made the decision to demand their loyalty with military force rather than try to earn it.

Телебачення Торонто, or Ukrainian Toronto Television, is a satirical Ukranian-language show where Roman Vintoniv poses as a Canadian journalist to expose corruption. It received funding from the National Endowment for Democracy, and has over 400,000 subscribers on Youtube.

The forces shaping the conflict

Russia has co-authored the current crisis—by annexing Crimea, forcing the hand of the pro-western forces over the Free Trade Agreement, and backing eastern separatists to one extent or another. The Western-backed Ukrainian political forces have been an unstoppable force to Russia’s immovable object.

But to say that official Russian reactions have been completely overblown or aggressive is to suggest that the U.S., Canada and other Western actors should have no limits whatsoever on their projection of power in the region.

How would the US react if Russia spent $5 billion funding civil society, democratic institutions and military in Canada? If the number was proportional to Gross Domestic Product, the figure would be more like $50 billion. 

Judging by the response to a Russian troll farm buying around $100,000 worth of Facebook ads during the 2016 election, such an intervention would be unwelcome to say the least. Certainly, no one would find it particularly strange for the US—in that scenario—to tell Russia to get out of its back yard. 

The western press has put a great deal of emphasis on Putin’s wily tactics. He does make use of the KGB playbook as well as the State Department’s bag of tricks—the Crimean referendum, for example, borrowed from how Western powers broke up the former Yugoslavia, peeling off Kosovo and Montenegro after the war was long over. But heavy emphasis on Putin tends to obscure the extent to which his choices are largely an expression of long-standing Russian geopolitical preoccupations, dating decades if not centuries into the past. While Putin has played a key role in creating an illiberal and in many ways autocratic regime in Russia, his foreign policy aims are largely standard-issue.

Since the time of Napoleon, Russian history has been driven by the reality that its military is weaker than the forces of the West’s strongest country (or of the west’s military combined)—and that its heartland is not protected by natural barriers such as mountains or rivers. This makes invasion easy. Within living memory, a devastating attack by Nazi Germany through Ukraine and Belarus came within an inch of capturing Moscow. Without the territorial buffer provided by those countries, the Nazi attack would have succeeded. 

Most Americans and Canadians think of the Cuban missile crisis as the USSR provoking a crisis by stationing nuclear missiles in Cuba, mere miles from US shores. Russians remember it differently: as a response to American missiles that had already been stationed in neighbouring Turkey. (The Turkish missiles were quietly removed by the Kennedy administration as part of a secret arrangement that allowed the American President to appear to have won the standoff.)

Within this framework, having a buffer of subordinated, allied or at least neutral states to the West makes sense from a Russian perspective. If Ukraine was a NATO member, NATO would be in a position to station armaments and troops on Ukraine’s border with Russia. It has been pointed out that NATO poses no threat to Russia at the moment, but then again almost no one predicted World War Two after World War One. Any Russian leader thinking long-term is going to brace for the unexpected. 

For its part, Canada has taken on the aggressive role that it has for a combination of reasons. A subset of the country’s Ukrainian descendents have been mobilized into organizations, many of which have in turn received funding from the government, leading to an expanding loop of ever more concentrated lobbying power.

Canada’s economic elite have benefited extensively from the fraction of the massive U.S. arms manufacturing sector that gets contracted north of the border. They are already keen to stay in lockstep with U.S. foreign policy, but since Canada’s abstention from the Iraq war, they have been all the more eager for the government to get out in front of U.S. priorities and prove their worth. Canada’s middle power/peacekeeper identity has been all but dropped.

Especially after the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, the role of the military industrial complex—worth trillions to its investors—cannot be underestimated in terms of its impact on U.S. political priorities. President Biden did not seem particularly enthusiastic about escalating tensions with Russia, giving an uncharacteristically even-handed assessment of what would happen in the event of a partial Russian incursion. The tone changed drastically, however, in the following week, with the State Department taking steps to raise tensions and telegraph an impending invasion. Military contractors missing their extremely lucrative contracts must play some role in the shift—Pentagon spending totalled over $14 trillion since the start of the war in Afghanistan, and weapons makers plowed an estimated $2.5 billion of that into lobbying Congress.

It’s difficult to know how Russia will react to all this. Domestic pressures, a need to save face, long-term strategic considerations—and inevitably, human foibles—will come into play. But whatever the outcome, Russia’s significant interest in maintaining economic ties with Ukraine make a full-scale invasion unlikely. 

Russia, for example, did not invade mainland Ukraine in 2014, when the Ukrainian army was less well-equipped, and when the internal situation in Ukraine was arguably more volatile and more subject to outside influence than it is now. Russia did not come to the aid of the self-declared pro-Russian, anti-Maidan “People’s republic” in Kharkiv, or overtly back pro-Russian movements in Odessa. It has contented itself with interfering in the two far-eastern oblasts of Donetsk and Lugansk in what many see as a harassing move aimed at pressuring Kiev into concessions. 

Russian troop movements around Ukraine have built up and slacked off again many times since 2014 as part of its military posturing, and there is no reason obvious to outside observers why a full-scale invasion is more likely now than a year ago.

Whether this round of maneuvers escalates into a full-blown regional military conflict—or worse—will depend at least in part on who tells the stories about what’s going on, and who believes them.

This draws from the author’s reports published in Maisonneuve, Al Jazeera and the Media Co-op. Files from Dru Oja Jay.

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