Former Ambassador of Ukraine to Canada on Canada-Ukraine relations, security interests and COVID-19 pandemic challenges
October 31 was Andriy Shevchenko’s last day as the Ambassador of Ukraine to Canada, marking the end of his six-year term in this role. The NATO Association of Canada hosted a virtual discussion with Shevchenko in the summer, where Shevchenko shared his perspectives on the Canada-Ukraine relations, Russian threat to Ukraine’s security and some of the challenges that the COVID-19 pandemic poses for diplomatic relations between Ukraine and the rest of the world. Below is an edited text of the interview.
Q: On December 2, 1991, Canada became the first western country to recognize Ukraine’s independence. Since then, we have shared a close partnership, whether it be through multilateral cooperation or mutual trade. How would you define this bilateral relationship, and what would you say needs to be done to preserve and ensure the resiliency of these ties for the future?
A: Ukraine has adopted a new national security strategy, and for the first time, Canada was identified as one of five major partners of Ukraine that have key strategic importance, alongside the U.S., the UK, France and Germany. This is also a very clear and obvious legal recognition of that extraordinary relationship that we have built. I think over the last 30 years, we saw Canada as a true friend, who introduced Ukraine to the free world. Canada was indeed the first western country to recognize our independence, Canada helped us to get into the WTO. Now we see this very intense, extraordinary cooperation between our countries, and it’s something that we greatly cherish. And of course, the Ukrainian Canadians are a major part of that cooperation. But I think it’s much more than that. We want to believe that Canada sees Ukraine as a friend not just because of this extraordinary Canadian community, but because we are like-minded.
Canada is home to 1.3 million Ukrainian Canadians. What is your perspective on the importance of this cultural exchange, and in this exchange of people, and how that relates to international relations and multilateral cooperation?
It’s an extraordinary bridge between our two nations. At some point, Ukrainian Canadians helped Ukrainians on the Ukrainian mainland to preserve our heritage, our language, our memory. I can give you one example, in the 1930s, Ukraine survived the Holodomor, which was a terrible famine, executed on Ukraine by the Stalin regime. The first monument to commemorate the victims of that terrible tragedy was built not in Kyiv, Ukraine, but in Edmonton, Alberta. And then in the 90s, we saw how the knowledge, the memory, was returning from Canada to Ukraine in many ways. That gives the feeling of the complexity of this relationship between Ukraine and the Ukrainian Canadians.
In that spirit of a global community, given the rise of global threats such as climate change and pandemics, what would you say is the best way forward for Canada and Ukraine to address rising concerns to security?
I think we should see our relationship as the way for how like-minded countries should work together. I think for us, the biggest task is how we can convert this wonderful, emotional, historical connection between the countries into very pragmatic win-win initiatives that could help both nations and would make the world better. That’s exactly how we approach all the evidence of our cooperation, whether we talk about security or trade or academics or science or culture. In the field of security, for example, we have Operation UNIFIER, which is an extraordinary training mission by Canada in Ukraine. It’s an amazing two-way learning street.
For us, it means saved lives. It means stronger Ukraine, it means that more families will get their brothers, fathers or sisters and daughters back home after their mission at the frontlines. It’s a very practical way of cooperation.
I’ve had a chance to accompany Prime Minister Trudeau to the Yavoriv training field in Western Ukraine. I was astonished to hear what Canadian soldiers and officers had to tell their Prime Minister about their cooperation with the Ukrainians. They told their Prime Minister about the lessons they have learned from the Ukrainians, whether it’s trench warfare, or the drones, or some other sophisticated tools, which Russia is using. That’s the kind of experience that Ukraine can now share with our Canadian friends and counterparts. So, it’s a very important two-way learning street. I think both Canadian and Ukrainian men and women in uniforms have built amazing trust between them. And we cherish and appreciate that help so much.
How we, as Canadians, and Ukrainians can grow multilateral support within our citizens to really address their national security concerns?
First, we should recognize that those wonderful things that we cherish, are not for granted. Freedom, justice, peace and security – Ukraine has had a very difficult way to learn that. We should not take for granted those things that we cherish. Moreover, such things as multinational cooperation, free trade, they’re not “sexy” words anymore.
But when you speak about Canada and Ukraine, we find that those two nations are very aligned when it comes to those priorities. If Canada is serious about advancing values like multinational cooperation, international order, human rights, human dignity, justice, free trade on the global stage, it will be very difficult to find a better partner in our part of the world than Ukraine.
In the last few months, we saw an increase in Russian aggression along the shared border with Ukraine. In light of those events, we had the U.S.-Russia meeting between presidents Putin and Biden, as well as the NATO Summit, where Canada affirmed their commitment to Ukrainian sovereignty. Is there cause for any optimism in Ukraine for de-escalation tensions with Russia? Or what is the current state of affairs between Ukraine and Russia?
We have reasons to be worried but also to be optimistic. I’ll start with the concerns. This Russian military buildup is far from being over – a large amount of the troops have stayed very close to the Ukrainian border, along with armoured vehicles, tanks and other heavy equipment. This threat of very heavy escalation is just as present as it was in April or in late March.
I think this whole situation taught us that things can become very brutal, very quickly. We had spent years debating over nuances of the Minsk process or the Normandy negotiations. On the good side, if Russia wanted to challenge the West, then they terribly failed, because the reaction was so prompt, so well-coordinated across the free world. I think it was extraordinary. But again, there is a very clear risk of further escalation to Ukraine. The war has not stopped there for a single day.
What do you think the impact of COVID-19 will be on the ability to conduct diplomacy, and for you as a servant of Ukraine? How has that impacted your job and your day-to-day work?
I think many of us have come to an even greater appreciation of the relationships that we had created before the Coronavirus hit us. This is the time when you really test your connections. I think in the case of Canada and Ukraine, we have found some very decent ways how not to lose the speed.
On the other hand, I think there are always some fields of diplomacy where COVID has provided some new challenges which are difficult to overcome. As an example, we can talk about peace and reconciliation. Anyone who has dealt with peace talks, with complicated peace negotiations, knows how important it is to build that very personal connection. So what I hear from diplomats who are much more experienced than myself, they say this is the field that has been hit a lot because it is difficult to build trust just in your Zoom sessions, especially when you deal with very delicate, sensitive issues like peace and war.
I think we have to find even more efficient ways to build trust and to be strategic. Since the times of Charles Darwin, not much has changed in this universe, it’s not necessarily the smartest or the strongest who survives, but it’s the one who adjusts better to the new circumstances.
The NATO Association of Canada is a nonprofit, charitable organization whose job is to make sure that Canadians understand the value of security and the importance of NATO.
This article is written under the Local Journalism Initiative agreement
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