Politics·Analysis

Ukraine seeks to avoid being a bargaining chip between Washington and Moscow

Ukrainian politicians have appealed to their Canadian counterparts to help "educate" the Trump administration on the geopolitical importance of their country. It comes at a time when Canadians face troubles of their own getting through to the new American president.

'We have the same challenge' getting through to Washington, Liberal MP tells Ukrainians

Oksana Syroyid, deputy Speaker of the Ukrainian parliament, was in Ottawa and Washington pressing the case for judicial reform. (Murray Brewster/CBC)

As former law professor, Oksana Syroyid is used to educating people.  

She has found that to be a useful skill these days.

As deputy Speaker of Ukraine's parliament, Syroyid took to educating Canadian and U.S. lawmakers during a recent visit, walking them through the labyrinth of politics in her country and Eastern Europe.

As with any tutoring, there needed to be a healthy dose of repetition and connecting the dots — something Syroyid believes is critical as Ukraine tries to avoid becoming a bargaining chip between Washington and Moscow.

During a recent appearance at the House of Commons foreign affairs committee, Syroyid appealed to Canadian politicians to help her educate the new U.S. administration about the geopolitical significance of her country.

In Washington she found, much like her Canadian counterparts, an official vacuum with many key positions still unfilled and ill-defined policy that has been punctuated by contradictory campaign speeches and errant Donald Trump tweets.

"We have the same challenge," Liberal MP John McKay told her.

"Thank God we are not alone," she said.

It might be said, with looming trade disputes over softwood lumber and aerospace subsidies, that Canadians are having the same trouble educating Americans.

For the Canada-U.S. relationship, the stakes are enormous, particularly on the economic scale, but arguably they are not existential.

The stakes are far higher in Ukraine, with its eastern districts in the midst of a Russian-backed insurgency.

Doing business with Russia

Syroyid chuckled when asked about having to repeat the same message all over the world.

"We do it in different capitals," she told CBC News. "We do it in Paris. We do it in Berlin. We do it Brussels. Anywhere we can reach, we do the same talk."

There is, however, a growing sense of gravity to the discussion as witnessed last week when former Ukrainian prime minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk also made the rounds in Ottawa. 

Former Ukrainian prime minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk says he is somewhat reassured Ukraine is still on the U.S. administration's radar. (Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

He sees a renewed opportunity with the election of the Trump administration to obtain modern military equipment for his country. Following a meeting with U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Yatsenyuk says he is somewhat reassured Ukraine is still on the administration's radar.

Aside from Washington's jumbled foreign policy, there are some places in Europe where there is pressure for trade-offs because the Ukrainian crisis is measured in dollars and cents.

"People want to do business with Russia," Syroyid said.

But recent events in eastern Ukraine, largely ignored in the West, may prove meaningful in the conflict, which occasionally seems to unfold in slow motion.

Power politics

Ukraine's national energy company cut off electricity to separatist-occupied regions of Donbass on April 25, and within an hour the lights were back on.

Russia's power grid is now supplying the energy, at what local media estimates is a cost of $53 million US a year.

This is where it gets complicated and downright opaque.

The move would appear, on the surface, to be another step towards secession in the contested region.

The Ukrainian utility, which was until 2014 a state-run enterprise, apparently counts a Russian oligarch among its biggest investors, she said.

The company, according to Syroyid, has not explained its decision other than to say it was no longer willing to underwrite the millions of dollars in unpaid bills from the breakaway regions.

"It's a game. It's a play," she said.

Russian ownership of key Ukrainian businesses is a matter of burgeoning political concern.

Hardening resolve

Syroyid describes it as the fourth wave in Russia's ongoing attempt to "colonize" her country.

The first wave was direct military intervention to annex Crimea.  

The second wave was the backing of separatists in economically depressed eastern regions.

The third wave was what she describes as "political colonization" through an attempt to have Ukraine's constitution rewritten under the Minsk agreements.

Those separate accords were an attempt by the international community to stop the fighting in the breakaway regions regions of Donetsk and Luhansk.

Members of the separatist, self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic army collect parts of a destroyed Ukrainian army tank in the town of Vuhlehirsk. (Baz Ratner/Reuters)

But Syroyid says the political intention was "actually to colonize Ukraine back to Russia without any further shooting."

That is not the view of France, Germany, Belarus, Russia and even her own government, which signed on to the accord.

But her comments represent a further hardening of political resolve within Ukraine.

"The people of Ukraine didn't want it," she said. "They realized it was just a trick and any treaties with Russia make no sense."

Conflicting interests

The economic investment pro-Russian forces have made in her country, the so-called "controlled enterprises on the uncontrolled territory of Ukraine", represent the latest and perhaps greatest threat, she says.

They are legitimate businesses that pay taxes, but take their marching orders from Moscow, according to Syroyid.

Ukrainian army veterans and political activists who've fought in the stalemated eastern war have been applying political pressure on the government of President Petro Poroshenko to cut trade ties with the breakaway region.

Despite the trenches and daily shelling, shipments of coal, steel and other commodities still travel between the breakaway regions and Ukraine.

Syroyid says the message from soldiers, some who have blockaded railway lines, has been, "Stop the support of those who are killing us."

It is an elaborate set of circumstances that the Ukrainians believe bears repeating, particularly in Washington.

"We are ready to explain as long as somebody is willing to listen to us," Syroyid said.
 

About the Author

Murray Brewster

Defence and security

Murray Brewster is senior defence writer for CBC News, based in Ottawa. He has covered the Canadian military and foreign policy from Parliament Hill for over a decade. Among other assignments, he spent a total of 15 months on the ground covering the Afghan war for The Canadian Press. Prior to that, he covered defence issues and politics for CP in Nova Scotia for 11 years and was bureau chief for Standard Broadcast News in Ottawa.

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