World·Analysis

Facing Trump-Putin axis, Ukraine turns to a white knight — Chrystia Freeland

Can Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister and firm Putin critic Chrystia Freeland offer hope to isolated, war-burdened Ukraine? It's a long shot, Don Murray suggests, given the priorities of protecting Canada's trade interests.

Canada's new foreign affairs minister is descendant of Ukrainians and fierce critic of Vladimir Putin's wars

Chrystia Freeland watches after being sworn in as Canada's minister of foreign affairs in a cabinet shuffle at Rideau Hall in Ottawa on Jan. 10. (Chris Wattie/Reuters)

Seen from Ukraine, the news from North America at the beginning of the year was promising.

Chrystia Freeland was sworn in as Canada's new minister of foreign affairs on Jan. 10.

She is the proud descendant of Ukrainians and a fierce critic of Russian President Vladimir Putin's wars in Ukraine and his annexation of Crimea in 2014. She has written of his "revanchist policy" and called his characterization of Ukrainians as dupes of NATO, even neo-Nazis, "his most dramatic resort to the Soviet tactic of the Big Lie."

For this she was added to Putin's so-called blacklist. Canada's new foreign minister is, for the moment, banned from Russia.

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, right, and U.S. Vice President Joe Biden attend a news conference in Kyiv, Ukraine, on Monday. (Gleb Garanich/Reuters)

Ten days later, on Friday, a swearing-in far more frightening for the government in Kyiv will take place. With the presidency of Donald Trump — a man who says he trusts Putin and is ready to do "deals" with him — Ukraine will experience a double winter: the real one at home and deep political winter in Washington.

More, perhaps, than any other national leadership, Ukraine's government was cheering for the losing horse in the U.S. presidential election. In fact, it did more than cheer.

In the summer of 2016, a Ukrainian government agency published information showing Paul Manafort, a key Trump adviser, had received millions of dollars from the pro-Russian party of former Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych.

Yanukovych was a close ally of Putin until he fled from office and took refuge in Russia after months of angry demonstrations in 2014.

Ukrainian businessman Victor Pinchuk. (Jacques Demarthon/AFP/Getty Images)

Manafort was quickly dumped from Trump's campaign after the payment revelations. But the accusations swirled, and continue to swirl, that Trump and his people are far too close to Moscow and its allies.

With the success of that political manoeuvre, the Ukrainian leadership became convinced that Trump couldn't win. So confident were they that they publicly denigrated him.

The Ukrainian minister of internal affairs, Arsen Avakov, called him a "clown" on Twitter, then doubled down on Facebook, after Trump seemed to have missed the fact that Russia had taken over Crimea. "The diagnosis of a dangerous misfit," Avakov wrote but later deleted.

Too late.

Ukrainian officials quickly learned that Trump is not a man to forget or forgive. They were frozen out of the Trump transition.

The Obama administration, in a forlorn final wave to Kyiv, dispatched Vice-President Joe Biden to Kyiv on Jan. 16. He called on Ukraine "to stand against Russian aggression." He could offer little but words of solidarity.

That solidarity may be short-lived. Trump is now talking of dropping some Western sanctions imposed because of the Crimean annexation in return for a deal with Moscow on nuclear weapons. Ukrainians worry they will be roadkill in the drive to that rapprochement.

Chrystia Freeland is sworn in as minister of foreign affairs in Ottawa Jan 10. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

For almost three years, the country has been embroiled in a war launched by pro-Russian separatists and orchestrated by the Kremlin in the east of Ukraine. It has killed more than 10,000 and forced more than two million people to flee their homes. Along the front line, villagers live in penury, hiding in cellars from daily shelling.

The young have left, looking for work. One old woman, standing in the cold street, said, "When I phone asking for help, the authorities say we shouldn't even be here."

As if to salute Trump's impending inauguration, fighting intensified along the front in eastern Ukraine in January. In the first 10 days, Ukraine reported 400 shelling incidents launched by the separatists. Nineteen Ukrainian soldiers were killed in December alone.

This is a "frozen war." The front line has barely moved in two years. It may not move for years to come, according to Ukrainian journalist Stanislav Varin.

Fearful prospect

"The leaders in the occupied territories have already divided up local business," he said in an interview.

"Civilians stay in line. Those who would not accept this left for Ukrainian-controlled territory. Both sides are making millions by smuggling over the separation line. For Ukrainian politicians, this war is a good excuse for the dire economic situation in the country."

The fearful prospect of a Trump-Putin axis has just led one very rich Ukrainian oligarch to break ranks.

Victor Pinchuk publicly suggested that Ukraine should recognize Russia's control of Crimea in return for a deal to end the fighting in eastern Ukraine.

Losing friends and influence

For good measure, he suggested Ukraine give up hope of joining NATO and the European Union, in effect admitting that Putin had checkmated Kyiv.

The Ukrainian leadership denounced his suggestion. But this is a country that is losing friends and influence.

Even the European Union is keeping its distance. The EU has troubles of its own, among them far-right leaders in France, the Netherlands, Germany and Austria who call for an end to sanctions against Russia.

The less-than-vigorous war on corruption is also a friend-loser in Europe. In November, Mikhail Saakashvili, the former president of Georgia handpicked by Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko to undertake a cleanup of Ukraine's Odessa region, resigned in fury.

He said the government in Kyiv, and Poroshenko's office, had blocked his efforts. And this at a time when government leaders, such as the incoming prime minister, revealed without embarrassment that they had millions of U.S.  dollars — in cash — under their mattresses.

White knight

Ukraine's currency, the hrivna, has been brutally devalued more than once and is worth just pennies to the dollar.

Now, in desperation, Ukraine turns to a last white knight — Canada's Freeland. Ukraine's ambassador to Canada, along with the ambassador of Latvia, has pleaded with Freeland to make their case when she goes to Washington for the inauguration.

They say that she can alert Trump's people to the dangers represented by Putin.

Maybe.

But Freeland has more pressing priorities, such as trying to protect Canada's interests in NAFTA, the North American Free Trade Agreement, which Trump has said he wants to rip up.

Ukraine's problems may get overlooked in discussions of auto and lumber exports.

Its winter could be long and cold.

About the Author

Don Murray

Eye on Europe

A well-travelled former CBC reporter and documentary maker, Don Murray is a freelance writer and translator based in London and Paris.