Rivers casts a critical eye on the Canadian military role in Ukraine - Part2

Rivers 100x100By Ray Rivers

June 16, 2017


Ray Rivers and his wife Jean spent a few weeks in Ukraine where they taught English as volunteers in a not for profit school and visited a Canadian army base while there,  This is part 2 of that adventure

Donald Trump, in his short time in office has at least one accomplishment under his belt. He has shamed NATO participants into boosting their defence spending. The Canadian government has just announced a 70% increase in the defence budget over the next ten years. But even that will only get us to 1.4%, still well below the 2% NATO target.

ice breaker

The Canadian ice breaker Sir Wilfred Laurier

The critics of enhanced defence spending will point out that the only nation which ever invaded Canada is now our closest ally, protecting us under its nuclear umbrella, and all the while peacefully sharing this country’s only land border. But climate change is opening up the vast arctic to development potential, and across the divide lies an expansionist Russia. And while there is no truth to the rumour that Vladimir Putin plans to invade Santa’s workshop in the North Pole and put St. Nicholas in charge, a rapidly militarizing Russia with a despotic leader in command does pose a concern.

After all, it wasn’t that long ago that Ukrainians believed they were safe in friendship with their former occupier and Soviet partner. In fact, that peace loving nation wanted nothing more than to transform its proverbial cold war swords into plowshares. It surrendered the third largest nuclear arsenal for a piece of paper signed by the US, UK and Russia, promising Ukrainian territorial integrity. And look at how well that worked out for them.

I visited a former Soviet base in north-western Ukraine which had been virtually boarded-up until they were attacked and the war started in 2014. Today 200 Canadian and an equivalent number of American troops, are helping Ukrainians reacquaint themselves with the lost art of war, including field medicine, strategy, tactics and weapons. It was a slow Saturday afternoon when I was driven to the base but I did get to observe a dozen or so snipers firing their 50’s era soviet Dragunov rifles – still a highly rated weapon despite its age. Having been a good shot in my youth, I would have liked someone to invite me to fire a round – but shooting is serious business for these professional killers.

Training is helpful but what Ukraine really needs are modern defensive weapons and weapon systems to stem the toll in human life inflicted on a daily basis by Russia and its proxies. After three years of aggression in the east, not a single NATO partner, including Canada, has offered up much more than helmets and night goggles. On the other hand this country seems to have no difficulty sending advanced armoured equipment to places like Saudi Arabia, a nation with a troubling record of human rights violations.

swords into

Turning swords into plowshares – a statute that sits outside the United Nations building in New York city.

And the plowshares thing – how has that worked out? Imagine if the Canadian government had nationalized all of our farm land 70 years ago and then suddenly tried to privatize it back again. Picture how that would happen in a world without real estate agents, registry offices or estate lawyers, and a bureaucracy with virtually no experience in land transfer. It is a miracle that land reform wasn’t total chaos instead of just a slow agonizing process. But today, the collectives are gone and 40% of all farmland is in private hands, including some owned by foreign corporations. And those private farms now produce 70% of the nation’s agricultural output.

One of the teachers at the school I was teaching at had studied economics in the old days – Karl Marx, of course – and complained that life had really been better under communism – at least people had jobs. But then she couldn’t explain why the Soviet Union had collapsed, nor could she offer a suggested pathway to improving the current economy. And going back to the USSR is not an option, even if the other Lennon’s fellow Beatle thought it made a good song.

Curiously I have yet to encounter someone who has anything good to say about the country’s president, Mr. Poroshenko. They complain about him being one of the well-heeled oligarchs, with money invested overseas, and question whether he has really closed down his Russian chocolate factories as he had promised to do.

Yet to this observer he seems to have delivered a good amount in his three years as president – halting and reversing the advance of the Russians/separatists in the south east of the country, restoring the economic balance in the economy, delivering an association agreement and a visa-free travel arrangement with the EU, and starting the process of routing-out corruption.

But perhaps that’s part of the problem. Ukrainians are too critical, expect too much of their leaders, and perhaps not enough of themselves. Some dislike having lost the security of life in the old socialist world and would turn the page back if they could. And others are perhaps uncertain or insecure about plunging into the risky world of market-oriented capitalism, even after a quarter century of so-called freedom. But everyone believes that corruption is at he heart of the country’s economic problems. And no doubt the oligarchs, with their vast wealth and positions of power, have much to answer for.

Члены Ассоциации защиты прав вкладчиков провели пикетирование Национального банка Украины с требованием возвращения депозитов. По словам собравшихся, они приурочили пикет ко дню рождения Главы Национального банка Сергея Арбузова. Экспертно-аналитический совет по вопросам участия государства в капитализации банков при Кабинете Министров решил начать выплаты вкладчикам Родовид Банка через Государственный Ощадный банк в апреле. Об этом говорится в сообщении Национального банка со ссылкой на заместителя главы НБУ Игоря Соркина. 17 марта состоялось заседание экспертно-аналитического совета по вопросам участия государства в капитализации банков, на котором было принято решение об осуществлении выплат средств вкладчикам Родовид Банка через один из государственных банков - Ощадбанк. НБУ обратился к банкам с требованием оказать Ощадбанку соответствующую поддержку во время выплаты средств вкладчикам Родовид Банка через их банкоматы и сеть. Кроме того, было принято решение, что выплаты средств начнутся в апреле текущего года после согласования Нацбанком и правительством

Significant disparity in the distribution of wealth in Ukraine.

From all appearances the big cities with their modern supermarkets, trendy shops, restaurants and bars, filled with well dressed, with-it, Ukrainians are just like those in the rest of Europe. Though underneath that modern facade lies an economy, still bound in the past, struggling to survive and hoping to take off into the future. And Ukraine has much to offer, particularly for tourists. It is one of the best bargain destinations anywhere given its current exchange rate. I treated nine people to dinner and drinks in one of the best Georgian restaurants here for a little over $100 the other night.

But they have got to get the tourists to come here in the first place. And that would include finishing that pointless war in the east, regardless that there are virtually no signs of conflict anywhere in the rest of the county. And that would also entail more effort to make tourists feel at home in their own language or at least one they feel comfortable using – one of the reasons I’m here teaching English.

In that vein, Ukrainians have mulled the possibility of dropping the difficult (for us) Cyrillic alphabet in favour of the Latin script, like the one we use. Poland did this years ago, and former Soviet republics Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan are now making that change. Although Latin lettering can already be seen on some Ukrainian street signs, such a move towards complete replacement would threaten Russian cultural dominance even further. And that might be the best reason of all.

Rivers looking to his leftRay Rivers writes weekly on both federal and provincial politics, applying his more than 25 years as a federal bureaucrat to his thinking.  Rivers was a candidate for provincial office in Burlington in 1995.  He was the founder of the Burlington citizen committee on sustainability at a time when climate warming was a hotly debated subject.     Tweet @rayzrivers

Background links:

Part 1

Military Spending –   Ukraine Military Mission

Trudeau Visting Ukraine Base –   Dragonuv Sniper

Land Reform Issues –   Language Matters –   More Language

Return to the Front page
Print Friendly, PDF & Email

3 comments to Rivers casts a critical eye on the Canadian military role in Ukraine – Part2

  • Bill Boyd


    Likely germane to your points about Russia’s behavior in that part of Eurasia may be found at the following link:


    By the way, I agree with Steve regarding the extreme difficulty of any population weaning itself off what a totalitarian statedelivers, particularly after living decades under such regimes…I might add, whether capitalist or otherwise.

    Thanks, again, for that man-on-the-street reportage. [I’m thinking you’d’ve made an excellent shamus.]


  • steve

    “at least people had jobs”

    Yes, we pretend to work, and you pretend to pay us. I think a big problem happened when the communist tyranny collapsed so quickly, and Russia was left with a population that was raised to be wards of the state and not ready at all for individuality or what we would called European work ethic. Absolute children in a sense.

    Example, I remember reading long ago when one of Russia’s best dancers defected to America to be the star of the American Ballet. It was a few years later when a reporter caught up with his mother and asked what she thought of her son’s defection. Her big concern was who was going to assign him an apartment. That was a big concern for her.

    At the time of the collapse the only people who understood how to operate without total state involvement, were the criminals. Guess who flourished? I think China saw all that, and decided to slowly move toward a more capitalist model which seems to have avoided the same calamity.

  • Marco M. Pardi

    Sounds like a very attractive place to visit. I’m assuming it suffered less than other former Soviet states from the environmental damage so severe during those years. The elimination of Cyrillic might be too drastic if done at once. Better the addition of Latin script when feasible. The Catholic church found attendance dropped when the Mass was converted to the vernacular; it lost its “other worldly” attraction. In the same ways, I would think a tourist would want visual reminders that the effort to get there truly brought him to “someplace else”. However, I do agree this would greatly facilitate the cultural separation from the Russians.