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Russia, Ukraine in dangerous diplomatic waters after Black Sea skirmish

A closer look at the day's most notable stories with The National's Jonathon Gatehouse: tensions between Ukraine and Russia soar over Black Sea incident; the symbiotic relationship between Canada's pot growers and the tech companies supporting them; a White (House) Christmas, Trump-style.

Newsletter: A closer look at the day's most notable stories

A member of Russia's FSB security service, left, escorts a detained Ukrainian navy sailor to a court hearing in Simferopol, Crimea, on Tuesday. (Pavel Rebrov/Reuters)

Welcome to The National Today newsletter, which takes a closer look at what's happening around some of the day's most notable stories. Sign up here and it will be delivered directly to your inbox Monday to Friday.


  • Developments since Russia's seizure of three Ukrainian vessels and their crews on Sunday have greatly increased the risk of a full-on war.
  • A symbiotic relationship is developing between Canada's pot producers and companies that are creating technology to support their operations.
  • A White (House) Christmas, Trump-style.
  • Missed The National last night? Watch it here.

Perilous waters

A lot of gunboat, but not much diplomacy.

That's the dangerous situation that Ukraine and Russia find themselves locked in following a naval skirmish on the Black Sea on Sunday.

Russian forces shot and rammed two Ukrainian patrol boats and an accompanying tug, seizing the vessels and taking 24 sailors prisoner.

The incident stems from simmering tensions over the annexed Crimean peninsula. The Russians now control the land and the nearby waters, claiming them as their own.

The seized Ukrainian vessels, a pair of small armoured artillery ships and a tug boat, are seen anchored in a port of Kerch, Crimea, on Monday. (Pavel Rebrov/Reuters)

The Ukrainian Navy says it had warned the Russians of its intention to sail the ships through the Kerch Strait to the port of Mariupol the Sea of Azov. The Russians, who have been stopping and inspecting every foreign vessel travelling through the narrows for months, claim it was an illegal attempt to run their blockade.

But it's what has developed since Sunday that has greatly increased the risk of a full-on war.  

Last night, Ukraine's parliament agreed to declare a month-long state of martial law in 10 border regions, suspending civil liberties such as the right of assembly and opening the possibility of mass conscription.

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko says the move was necessary to strengthen the country's defences against the "extremely serious" threat of a Russian invasion.

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko has declared martial law over the sea confrontation with Russia. (Genya Savilov/AFP/Getty Images)

For their part, the Russians are doing little to calm those fears, calling Ukraine's military footing a "dangerous" provocation.

Vladimir Putin today blamed Ukraine for the confrontation, saying its sailors "deliberately ignored the rules of peaceful passage in the territorial sea of the Russian Federation." He added a warning that the conflict could easily escalate.

Then the Kremlin did its best to increase tensions, releasing a video of three of the captured sailors in which the men delivered less-than-heartfelt confessions.

"We were warned by the border service of the Russian Federation that we were violating Russian law. They had repeatedly asked us to leave the territorial waters of the Russian Federation," said one man identified as Andriy Drach.

Volodymyr Lisovyi, the commander of a small detachment on board the vessels, said he had "deliberately ignored requests via ultra-short-wave band," to turn back.

The head of the Ukrainian Navy told state television that the statements had been made under duress.

Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks during a meeting in Moscow on Tuesday. The Kremlin warned that Ukraine's declaration of martial law might trigger a flare-up in hostilities in eastern Ukraine, while Kiev blamed Russia for parading captured Ukrainian seamen on television. (Alexei Nikolsky, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP)

But despite demands from the UN, the United States, Canada and other members of the international community that the men and vessels be immediately freed, the Russians moved to formally charge the sailors. A Crimean court ordered their detention for another 60 days.

The Russians are crafting a narrative that claims Poroshenko deliberately provoked the confrontations for his own political ends, looking for an advantage in Ukraine's upcoming presidential elections.

"It is obvious that incumbent President Poroshenko has no chance to win in the elections as things stand at the moment," Dmitry Medvedev, the Russian prime minister, told reporters today, suggesting that the clash was staged "to achieve certain decisions politically advantageous for the incumbent president."

That seems a stretch, but Poroshenko's opponents at home are expressing concerns that the state of martial law might be used to delay the official start of the election campaign next month.

And Poroshenko, who is running third in the polls with just 10 per cent support, could certainly use a boost.

A detained Ukrainian sailor is escorted to a car by guards after a court hearing in Simferopol, Crimea, on Tuesday. Several more Ukrainian sailors held by Russia were expected to appear before the court later in the day. (AFP/Getty Images)

The same, of course, could be said for Putin, who is facing his own popularity problems. Attacking Ukraine has worked wonders for him in the past, with his approval rating hitting an all-time high of 90 per cent in 2015 following the annexation of Crimea.

Whatever political calculus might be at play, the risks are great. There are growing calls for a new round of economic sanctions on Russia as a punishment for Sunday's act of aggression.

And worries of a much wider conflict.

"We must do everything for de-escalation, to prevent this crisis turning into an even more serious crisis for security in Europe," Heiko Maas, the German foreign minister, said today.

Business best buds

There is pressure on cannabis producers to improve their yields and profits, and a symbiotic relationship is developing between Canada's pot producers and companies creating technology to support their operations. The CBC business unit looked into how technology will be a key factor in keeping plants healthy and improving harvests, writes producer James Dunne.

Sometimes the possibility of profit makes for fast and furious enemies, and other times the prospect of sharing the wealth creates "business best buds."

The latter is what seems to be happening between Canadian pot producers and entrepreneurs in the so called "weed tech" sector that's emerging to support cannabis growers.   

Reporter Aaron Saltzman and I visited the operations of a Toronto company called Braingrid, which started out in 2012 selling sensors to the solar power industry and then got into the weed tech world in 2016.

Braingrid produces sensors that track the temperature, moisture, pH, and more in a greenhouse. The company analyzes all this data in real time for the cultivator, and then sends it to the cloud so that growers can get the information they need about a crop with a few swipes on a smartphone.

Michael Kadonoff started Braingrid to build sensors for solar power industry, then switched the company's focus to helping licensed cannabis companies. 'Nobody can manage a million square feet by themselves the old way, which is to look, see, smell. You need bionic eyes, you need more nerve endings.' (James Dunne/CBC)

"We had to pivot into what we believe is centre stage for Canada", says Michael Kadonoff, the founder and CEO. "Globally speaking, cannabis is one of the best examples of where Canada's actually leading the world."

Cannabis growers say they count on technology like Braingrid's to help them cut costs and produce better plants ... and that it can be a make-or-break factor in their business.

The range of spin-off industries from the pot-cultivation business is fascinating, as innovation in one sector creates growth in a variety of ancillary fields. While Braingrid helps with actually growing pot, for example, some weed tech companies help producers track inventory or analyze the product itself. Others help companies ensure they're complying with the laws surrounding cultivation and sales.

This sensor designed by Braingrid can take readings for the temperature, moisture, pH, and more in a greenhouse. This one is is monitoring a crop for a producer called Beleave at a greenhouse located near Toronto. (Derek Hooper/CBC)

The success of a weed tech company like Braingrid is naturally to tied to the success of the weed growers. The plural there is critical; cannabis is a volatile business, and Braingrid is working with a number of cultivators to keep its exposure to that volatility diffused, particularly as this new industry goes through its initial growing pains.

"If you go back 100 and some years to the gold rush, the people who made the money were the people who sold the picks and the shovels and the axes and the pans, not so much the people who were scouring for gold," says Brad Poulos, who teaches a class called the Business of Cannabis at Ryerson University in Toronto.

Learn more about this side of the weed tech sector in Aaron's story on tonight's The National on CBC Television and streamed online, or read about it here on

- James Dunne

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For more on GM and Oshawa

Listen to today's CBC News Front Burner podcast, where I break down Canada's long history of corporate bailouts.

On Monday, General Motors announced it is pulling out of Oshawa, Ontario, where it employs more than 2,500 people. This comes years after a major Canadian bailout pulled GM back from the brink. The National's Jonathon Gatehouse breaks down corporate bailouts the Canadian auto sector has received and explains how that fits into Canada's broader relationship with buoying big business. 20:21

Forecasting a meme Christmas

The White House doesn't skimp on the Christmas decorations.

This year, the official rundown lists 77 different trees scattered around the building, all linked to First Lady Melania Trump's chosen theme of "American Treasures."

In the East Wing there's a Gold Star Family Tree festooned with patriotic ribbons, honouring U.S. troops and their loved ones.

The White House library has a tree tucked into each corner, decorated with special ornaments honouring President Harry S. Truman.

Most of the trees and other decorations are traditional, as you can see in this video, linked together with the blue and gold of the presidential seal.

But don't tell that to the internet.

For the second year running, the web world has seized on the monochrome decorations in the long Cross Hall. Last year they were white. This season they are bold, blood red — all 29 trees and 14,000 decorations.

To some, that embodies the joy of the season.

To others, not so much.  

A few words on ... 

The emotional toll of GM's plant closure on one Oshawa family.

Quote of the moment

"We've never seen anything quite like Facebook, where, while we were playing on our phones and apps, our democratic institutions ... seem to have been upended by frat-boy billionaires from California."

- NDP MP Charlie Angus during a special hearing in London, U.K., this morning, where lawmakers from several nations gathered to question Facebook executives about fake news and election outcomes.

Charlie Angus. (Darryl Dyck/Canadian Press)

What The National is reading

  • Manafort held secret talks with Assange in Ecuadorian embassy (Guardian)
  • U.S. prosecutors resist push to unseal Assange charges (CBC)
  • Argentina prosecutors consider charging Saudi Crown Prince (Independent)
  • Thousands of vets waited more than a year for feds to process disability claims (CBC)
  • European court rejects Berlusconi's appeal of public office ban (Politico EU)
  • Scotiabank retreats from Caribbean after 129 years (Bloomberg)
  • 'There's a quiet beauty here': NASA releases Mars lander photo (Irish Times)
  • The godfather of fake news (BBC)

Today in history

Nov. 27, 1966: Doctor Who creator Sydney Newman discusses his career

The Canadian expat is curtly dismissive of his 1963 creation, calling it a "silly little program for family viewing on Saturday afternoons." But the head of drama for the BBC had a toy Dalek on his desk, and dressed like he might be auditioning for a role as an extra. Perhaps the pride came two decades later, when he made a bid to return to the show as executive producer and reboot the series with a female Doctor.

Canadian expat Sydney Newman, Head of Drama Group at the BBC and creator of Doctor Who, recounts the tale of his working journey. 42:46

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About the Author

Jonathon Gatehouse

Jonathon Gatehouse

Has covered news and politics at home and abroad, reporting from dozens of countries. He has also written extensively about sports, including seven Olympic Games and a best-selling book on the business of pro-hockey.