Vadym Prystaiko says West losing interest in Ukraine

The outgoing Ukrainian ambassador to Canada says the world is ignoring Ukraine in favour of fighting ISIS, and blames "low-ranking bureaucrats" for a delay in processing Canada's $200-million loan to Ukraine.

'Everybody is afraid of Russia,' says outgoing Ukrainian ambassador

Vadym Prystaiko, the outgoing Ukrainian ambassador to Canada, is disappointed Stephen Harper's government sent its CF-18s to fight ISIS but refused military support for Ukraine during its time of crisis. Prystaiko and Harper are shown here during a joint photo call in the early days of the crisis in March. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

The Ukrainian ambassador to Canada says the West is turning away from helping his country for fear of taking on Russia.

In a frank, final interview with CBC News before he leaves his post in Ottawa, Vadym Prystaiko spoke with frustration about the level of military support offered to Ukraine in its battle with pro-Russian separatists, compared with the coalition mission in Iraq.

"You’re bombing, you’re sending F-18s Iraq’s government is asking for help and you’re sending everything. Then the Ukrainian government asks you the same… and you tell us what? No."

Canada has sent non-lethal military aid to Ukraine, including goggles, helmets and protective vests. Canada has also pledged more than $55 million to Ukraine in the form of aid, training and election monitoring.

In September, newly-elected Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko visited Canada and addressed Parliament.

The same day, Prime Minister Stephen Harper reiterated Canada's "steadfast" support for Ukraine "in the face of the Putin regime's persistent military aggression."

Ambassador Prystaiko says it’s obvious why Canada and other coalition countries are willing to take on ISIS but not help Ukraine fight pro-Russian separatists in the country's east.

Vadym Prystaiko is leaving Ottawa and set to be confirmed as the new deputy foreign minister for Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko's incoming government. (Justin Tang/Canadian Press)
​"Everybody is afraid of Russia," he says.

But he cautions Canada against this approach. "Some seriously believe that feeding Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova to the bear will make him quiet… satisfy him so he won’t go further."

Prystaiko says Ukraine had the same attitude towards Georgia, when in 2008 the former Soviet republic faced a nearly identical situation with Russian tanks and troops in their territory, supporting two breakaway regions.

He says Ukraine helped Georgia, but not enough for it to defeat Russia or keep control of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. And now, he says, it’s Ukraine’s turn.

"Everybody is thinking the same thing. We will help Ukraine, but not that much."

'People are dying'

Prystaiko is not your average diplomat.

After postings in Canada, the U.S. and a role on Ukraine’s NATO negotiating team, he has been asked personally by the president to return home to run the Ukrainian foreign ministry.

However, his appointment as deputy foreign minister cannot be confirmed until the new Ukrainian government is in place in December.

A frequent guest on CBC News Network’s Power & Politics and other media outlets during his posting, Prystaiko admits he has caused controversy in Canada with his outspoken opinions.​

How long do you think Ukrainians will tolerate this truce? We’re losing and losing and losing.- Vadym Prystaiko

But he says anyone whose nation is at war "can’t be 100 per cent fair or neutral or wise in what they say."

"Sometimes we get so emotional because people are dying."

In July, the ambassador publicly complained that the Canadian government had not yet delivered on a promise made in March to loan Ukraine more than $200 million.

The ambassador is unrepentant about his criticisms of the delay, blaming "low-ranking bureaucrats" for advising Harper that Canada could offer the money, but then getting hung up on clauses that prevent Canada from giving loans or loan guarantees to countries where there is civil unrest or civil war.

"Seriously? That’s why we’re asking for the money," Prystaiko says.

"It's bullshit. Either you tell your prime minister, you know what, we lied to you, it’s not possible. Or you make it happen."

A spokesman for the minister of foreign affairs said in a statement that the loan to Ukraine was provided under Section 8.3 of the Bretton Woods and Related Agreements Act. "The loan agreement between Canada and Ukraine stipulates that none of the loan shall be used, directly or indirectly, to fund purchases or activities which are lethal in nature," Adam Hodge said.

The $200-million loan was eventually signed in September, during the visit of Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko to Canada. 

Time to separate?

According to the latest situation report from the UN Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs, more than 4,000 people have died in fighting in eastern Ukraine.

Last month, the UN reported that more than 300 people have died since Ukraine and pro-Russian separatists signed the peace deal on Sept. 5.

The ambassador is gloomy about the so-called ceasefire.

"How long do you think Ukrainians will tolerate this truce? We’re losing and losing and losing," Prystaiko says.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper shakes hands with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko before his address to Parliament in September. Canada provided only non-military aid to Ukraine for its fight against separatist rebel groups. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)
It is this deteriorating situation that leads ambassador Prystaiko to wonder if Ukraine might have to consider letting the eastern part of the country separate. Unlike Canada, he says, there is no mechanism in the Ukrainian constitution to allow for a region to hold an independence vote. But a nation-wide referendum could be held.

"I believe there’s a point when Ukrainians can be asked: people, what do you think?"

"Do we really need them? I know that… no president would be able to utter this because that would be the end of his career. The opposition would have his throat."

But ambassador Prystaiko has never been afraid to speak his mind. Faced with a destabilizing war in the East that no one in the West wants to help fight, Prystaiko may be stating out loud what others in Kyiv are already thinking.


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