Ottawa owes Kyiv more than just moral support

Critics of Canadian foreign policy have often accused the Conservatives of taking the easy way out, yelling from the rooftops rather than working in the diplomatic trenches.

Critics of Canadian foreign policy have often accused the Conservatives of taking the easy way out, yelling from the rooftops rather than working in the diplomatic trenches.

Sometimes, we yell because there is precious little else we can do.

But when it comes to the country’s support of opposition protesters in Ukraine, we need to do much more than make noise.

We owe it to people who have been bravely putting their lives on the line for freedom.

Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird and Immigration Minister Chris Alexander summoned the cameras to the Commons foyer on Tuesday with the expectation that, with momentum appearing to swing behind the opposition, Ottawa would move to keep the pressure mounting on President Viktor Yanukovych.

Instead, they essentially yelled a bit more.

Baird has signalled that he wants any Canadian action to be undertaken in concert with Washington and the European Union, but this is a case in which Canada could get out in front, even if the situation in Kyiv and other Ukrainian cities looks fluid.

Alexander announced that those complicit in the oppression of Ukrainian citizens would be barred entry into this country and Baird demanded that the government hold an independent investigation into the killing of protesters.

Ottawa’s ambassador for religious freedom, Andrew Bennett, has journeyed to Kyiv to investigate and publicize the persecution of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church.

All of these initiatives should be welcomed by Ukrainian Canadians, but more could be done.

There was no move to try to identify assets held abroad so that sanctions could precisely target the Ukrainian leadership.

There was no suggestion of freezing those assets, no offer of amnesty should protest leaders need such refuge, and a sense of a Canadian Parliament coming together to do the right thing seems ephemeral, no matter how impassioned some of the words in a late night debate on Monday or how many Conservatives were able to squeeze around the podium for the cameras on Tuesday.

Canada has a special relationship with Ukraine. Canada was among the first countries to recognize Ukraine’s independence when it split from the former Soviet Union in 1991.

There are an estimated 1.2 million Canadians of Ukrainian origin, and if you live in Toronto, Hamilton, Regina, Winnipeg or Edmonton, and countless smaller communities, you are likely to know them not as members of the diaspora, but as friends, schoolmates or work colleagues.

The roots of this country’s relationship with Ukraine are so deep that we are home to the third largest Ukrainian population in the world.

“Ukrainians were fighting for independence for hundreds of years, and they deserve a free country, they deserve a democratic country and they deserve to be in charge of their own country,’’ said Wladyslaw Lizon, the heretofore anonymous Conservative MP for Mississauga East-Cooksville during the Monday debate, surely his most eloquent moment in the Commons.

But this is about more than just tyranny in Kyiv, it is about a turning point in the post-Cold War era and the megalomania of Russian President Vladimir Putin, whose wanton spending, corruption, hubris and Soviet-era rhetoric will be clearly on display for the world to see in eight days in Sochi.

This is a man who doesn’t think twice about persecuting gays and lesbians, journalists and political opponents.

He bought Ukraine by slashing prices on the gas it supplies to that country and propping up Yanukovych with US$15 billion in loans.

This is a man who has cherry-picked some of the most authoritative elements of the communist system, and bringing Ukraine under that umbrella would have ripple effects throughout the entire region.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper was correct when he characterized this as a battle between a “free and democratic Euro-Atlantic future” and “an anti-democratic Soviet past.’’

There is movement in Kyiv with the resignation of Prime Minister Mykola Azarov and the lifting of a state of emergency that led to the bloody crackdown on protesters.

But Yanukovych remains and Ukraine is at a crossroads.

Baird may be accused of many things, but he cannot be accused of a lack of energy, awareness and vigilance as Harper’s foreign affairs minister.

In December, when the mood was still one of defiance with little danger, the minister marched with the protesters.

We are on the right side. But now, when things have turned perilous but progress is being made, Baird could have taken another step, on his own, to show the world that Canada’s special relationship with Ukraine means more than words.

Tim Harper is a syndicated Toronto Star national affairs writer. He can be reached at tharper@thestar.ca.

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