Canada mulls Crimea observer mission to debunk Russia

OTTAWA — Canada is considering taking part in a special observer mission to Ukraine’s troubled Crimea region to debunk Russian claims that people there are at risk, The Canadian Press has learned.

OTTAWA — Canada is considering taking part in a special observer mission to Ukraine’s troubled Crimea region to debunk Russian claims that people there are at risk, The Canadian Press has learned.

Ukrainian ambassador Vadym Prystaiko said many governments are looking at how to get into Crimea to see the situation on the ground and to “take this pretext from the Russians,” which they are using to support their invasion of the Crimean peninsula.

“We are open for anyone who wants to come to Ukraine and see for themselves,” he said in an interview Monday at the Ukrainian embassy in Ottawa.

Prystaiko was speaking just as Russia’s ambassador to the United Nations, Vitaly Churkin, told the Security Council that Russian interests faced threats in the region.

He read from what he said was a letter from the fleeing President Viktor Yanukovych that asked for the Russian military “to establish legitimacy, peace, law and order, stability and defending the people of Ukraine.”

Prystaiko said he would like to see Canadians take part in future election observer missions as it has done so in the past, but added: “The mission to observe the tensions and Crimea (is) … even more important than bringing people to observe the presidential election in May.”

The envoy said he planned to meet Tuesday with Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird “to discuss the details.”

“We are consulting with Foreign Affairs,” Prystaiko said, but stressed there’s been no decision by Canada to participate and the matter is simply under discussion.

Baird’s office had no immediate comment.

Prystaiko also questioned the buildup of Russian troops across Ukraine’s northern border.

“We have to confirm it, but the local governments on the Russian side are preparing the refugee camps,” he said.

Prystaiko said he was grateful for the political support from Canadians “of all political parties, the government side, the opposition.”

Asked about last week’s decision by the Conservative government to exclude opposition MPs from a trip to Ukraine, Prystaiko replied:

“Every Canadian politician is welcome nowadays. a If anybody wants to go to Ukraine and had a plan now to help it, we will be more than happy to accommodate the ideas.”

Prystaiko was one of his country’s top negotiators behind Ukraine’s stalled bid to join NATO.

“If we were in NATO now, maybe Russia wouldn’t get so smart,” he said.

He said Ukraine’s bid never came to fruition because “nobody wanted to provoke Russia.”

Still, Prystaiko said he understands why Western countries, including Canada, are taking the military option off the table.

“Nobody wants to fight. Nobody wants their kids and fathers to die,” he said.

“The first ones who do not want it, that’s Ukrainians. Believe me we don’t want to fight and to have war on our own soil,” he added.

“I understand the reluctance of everybody. The only player who seems to be less reluctant is Mr. Putin.”

Earlier Monday, Prime Minister Stephen Harper telephoned his Ukrainian counterpart to offer Canada’s unwavering support.

“Prime Minister Harper condemned in the strongest terms President (Vladimir) Putin’s military intervention in Ukraine,” said Jason MacDonald, Harper’s spokesman. He said Harper spoke to Arseniy Yatsenyuk from Toronto.

“He expressed to Prime Minister Yatsenyuk that Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity must be respected and that the Ukrainian people must be free to determine their own future.”

At an event in Toronto, Harper again called on Putin to withdraw Russian forces. Canada has summoned its ambassador to Russia home for consultations and, along with some major allies, has suspended preparations for the G8 summit that is to be held in Russia in June.

Harper said Monday that Canada was reviewing “all planned bilateral interactions” with Russia.

“President Putin’s actions have put his country on a course of diplomatic and economic isolation that could see Russia exit the G8 entirely,” Harper said.

“We will also continue to work closely with our G7 partners and our allies.”

In his telephone call, Harper said he delivered a direct message to the Ukrainian people from Canadians.

“Canada pledges ongoing friendship and steadfast support for your efforts to defend your sovereignty and to restore economic and political stability.”

Tensions were running high in Crimea as Russia threatened to seize a Ukrainian warship.

Russia’s military invasion of the peninsula sparked concern in European capitals as diplomats met in Brussels, Kyiv and Geneva.

The House of Commons unanimously adopted a motion Monday that supports Ukraine and calls for a Russian withdrawal.

“We, on this side of the House, stand with the government and with Canadians who are condemning these very troubling actions,” said New Democrat MP Megan Leslie.

“We all stand in solidarity with Ukraine’s thirst for freedom, democracy, human rights and the civilized rule of law both domestically and internationally,” said Liberal MP Ralph Goodale.

Prystaiko said his embassy has been flooded with messages, letters, emails and general good wishes from Canadians.

“Sometimes we have up to hundreds a day,” he said. “People are bringing flowers and candles … they support us much.”

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