Alberta's Ukrainian community concerned for family, friends overseas

The Ukrainian community in Alberta is growing concerned for family and friends in Ukraine, after Russia further escalated the situation along the countries' shared border.

Russia mobilized about 100,000 troops to Ukraine borders, suggesting potential invasion

A convoy of Russian armored vehicles moves along a highway in Crimea, Tuesday, Jan. 18. Russia has concentrated an estimated 100,000 troops with tanks and other heavy weapons near Ukraine in what the West fears could be a prelude to an invasion. (The Associated Press)

The Ukrainian community in Alberta is growing concerned for family and friends in Ukraine, after Russia further escalated the situation along the countries' shared border.

Fighting in the Donbas region, in eastern Ukraine, has been happening since 2014. But Russia recently mobilized about 100,000 troops, as well as tanks and artillery, near Ukraine's northern, eastern and southern borders, suggesting there may be an invasion if Russia doesn't get its geopolitical whims.

"There's a lot of concern within our community here in Alberta, because we are deep-rooted," said Orysia Boychuk, president of the Ukrainian Canadian Congress - Alberta Provincial Council.

Generations of Ukrainians have immigrated to Alberta over the last 130 years, and many people within the local Ukrainian community still have ties to people who still live in the eastern European country, Boychuk explained.

"There is a very deep emotional connection," she said. "We're concerned for the political stability of the country and what the future holds for Ukraine, because there is a lot of fear, there's a lot of tension going on right now."

Ukraine has been working toward becoming a member of NATO  — the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, a political and military alliance between North American and European member countries — for several years.

But Russia says it wants NATO to not accept the country into its alliance, as well as a guarantee from the organization that it won't expand into areas Russia considers part of its sphere of influence. 
Many people living in Ukraine are worried but trying to stay calm, said Orysia Boychuk, president of the Ukrainian Canadian Congress - Alberta Provincial Council. (Submitted by Orysia Boychuk)

Russia also wants the United States to remove nuclear weapons from Europe and for Western allied countries to stop rotating their troops through several eastern European countries.

NATO has rejected these demands, so Russia's recent military action appears to be a power move to get its way.

Several countries, including Canada, have threatened to impose economic sanctions on Russia if it invades.

Regardless, the situation is seen as the most significant escalation since the Cold War — the open yet restricted decades-long rivalry between the U.S. and former Soviet Union, and their respective allies, that brought fears of nuclear war.

The people living in Ukraine are trying to remain calm, but they're worried — particularly those who live closer to the country's borders, said Boychuk, based on conversations she and others have had with loved ones.

"They're thinking about what the next steps are and what that would that actually mean now, should they go to war, and what the implications [would be] for them," she said.

If war breaks out, millions of people will likely flee Ukraine and seek refugee status elsewhere, said Boychuk.

Alberta's Ukrainian community is trying to find ways it could help those people if that scenario occurs, she said.

Vitaliy Milentyev, president for Alberta Ukraine Chamber of Commerce, said it's hard to think of a recent time where things have been like this.

"The situation is unambiguously tense," he said. "It is more heated than we've seen it in the seven years, close to eight years now that the military conflict is ongoing."

Milentyev said he thinks the Canadian government should be more actively involved in this situation, as there are thousands of Ukrainians living in Canada now. 

"The aggression and this whole tension is slowing down economic growth in the country. Investments are not flowing in, people are extremely careful about dealing with Ukraine," he said. 

"That in itself is damaging just as much as this whole nervousness around the country on the military side."

Jan. 22 is the Day of Unity of Ukraine, marking the anniversary of eastern and western Ukraine joining in 1919.

There are some small gatherings throughout the province Saturday for people to take photos and join the #StandWithUkraine campaign, showing solidarity and support for Ukrainians amid the situation overseas.

The Ukrainian Canadian Congress - Alberta Provincial Council is also preparing demonstrations in "the very near future," Boychuk said.

The congress wants Canadians to contact their Members of Parliament, pushing for Canada to provide the necessary military and economic support so people in Ukraine can defend themselves, Boychuk said.

It also wants NATO to fast-track Ukraine's membership action plan with the European Union, and for more severe sanctions against Russia to deter it from further aggression, she said.

With files from Nicholas Frew, Tricia Kindleman and Radio-Canada