Dragged into U.S. politics, Ukraine’s real challenge is ending a conflict sparked by Russia-backed separatists - Canadanewsmedia
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Dragged into U.S. politics, Ukraine’s real challenge is ending a conflict sparked by Russia-backed separatists

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KYIV, UKRAINE—Anna Zakharova sits on the edge of her bed in Calgary. She opens her computer and flips through Facebook, she sees posts from her new Canadian friends going on vacation, seeing concerts. But then, inevitably, she sees more bad news from home. Another friend is dead.

The news is gutting. She feels helpless.

“You feel like a betrayer because you left, when a lot of people stayed,” she says. Zakharova fled the Ukrainian territory of Crimea during the annexation by Russia more than five years ago.

The annexation tipped off the ongoing conflict in eastern Ukraine against Russian-backed separatists that has affected millions of people. It’s a war that has dragged on in a steady state for so long, it is easy to forget it’s happening.

“You try to do something to support them or to raise awareness here — but I understand, it’s far away, people are busy with their stuff here,” Zakharova says. “But, I don’t know, I feel like nobody cares.”

Ukraine is making international headlines daily, having been hauled into American politics, notably by the now-infamous phone conversation between the two countries’ presidents this summer.

The conversation has sparked an impeachment inquiry in the U.S. The call is far from big news in Ukraine, where people wish the focus could be on the war. But despite the attitude of indifference toward the scandal, it could have significant impacts.

“This scandal will definitely influence Ukraine because we will either be seen to support Democrats or Republicans,” says Evgeniya Goryunova, a political science professor at V.I. Vernadsky Taurida National University. “Ukraine now risks losing a political ally and the military support of the United States. So it’s a very problematic issue.”

And support for the Ukrainian military is needed, in more ways than one.

From the battlefield to Kyiv

Vyacheslav Bevz pulls on his polar fleece camo jacket and laces up his work boots. It’s a far cry from the suit he wears for his day job as minister of one of Kyiv’s churches.

He tromps through the fall leaves to the city’s military facilities, and down the chilled brick halls of the rehabilitation facility. His days volunteering as a military chaplain are filled with visits here.

Four soldiers share this room. Three with amputations, one with a leg pinned in place.

Suicide and addiction have become increasingly dire problems among veterans of the war, Bevz explains. He worries about every soldier coming home with a serious disability.

But Yegor greets Bevz with a smile as Mulder and Scully solve their latest paranormal case; “The X-Files” plays on the TV screen in the corner. Yegor didn’t feel comfortable sharing his last name, but agreed to have his photo taken.

His left leg bears the scars of battle, while his right leg has been amputated above the knee. These aren’t old wounds, but stories of the daily injuries and deaths don’t make international headlines anymore, they just add to the wartime statistics.

Yegor is from one of the towns currently occupied by pro-Russian forces in the eastern provinces. He stayed there with his family until his mother died of cancer, unable to receive medical treatment because of the conflict. His grandmother died not long after. Then he decided enough was enough.

“It was forbidden to say anything negative about Putin or Stalin,” he says. “Because of my patriotic views, I decided to leave and join the military.”

Yegor worked as a military medic until he was injured by a missile.

Yegor jokes around with the other soldiers as he puts on his prosthetic leg, spinning it upside down to hit himself in the head. He is far from self-pitying; instead he worries about the future of Ukraine. He didn’t vote for the country’s new president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, who was previously a comedic actor.

On the campaign trail Zelenskiy promised his priority was to end the war. This demonstrates a misunderstanding of the conflict’s dynamics, Yegor says. His fellow soldiers nod in agreement.

“Russia will not give up,” he says with the help of a translator. “Any withdrawal on our part will only serve as our weakness and their gain. Russia will continue to expand into eastern Europe if we let them.”

Ukrainians are not shy when it comes to accusing Russia of trying, and in some cases succeeding, to destroy their country, piece by piece.

This sentiment of muted panic at the prospect of the country’s sovereignty slipping away is paired with a distinct feeling that the international community has stopped paying attention.

This summer, Russia was readmitted to the Council of Europe, and U.S. President Donald Trump encouraged world leaders to allow for Russia to return to the G7. Russia was ejected from both groups following the annexation of Crimea.

To Anna Zakharova in Calgary, this demonstrates how poor the international collective memory is. Goryunova, the political science professor, agrees.

Evgeniya Goryunova was forced to leave Crimea during the annexation of the territory by Russia. She asks to be photographed in front of the globe monument in Maidan in Kyiv, because it tells her exactly how far away she is from her home.

“We can see business sometimes is more important than democratic values,” she says.

This forgetfulness is frustrating to soldiers, and maddening for those trying to get the word out.

Alya Shandra is the editor-in-chief of Euromaidan Press, an English-language online news outlet that was started during the 2014 revolution. Her outlet focuses on the conflict in the east as well as domestic obstacles to reform.

This summer Shandra co-authored a report that analyzed emails leaked by a group of hackers known as the Ukrainian Cyber Alliance. The emails are principally from Vladislav Surkov, an influential aide to Russian President Vladimir Putin.

The report was published by the U.K.’s Royal United Services Institute and the emails were judged to be authentic by the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab. The Kremlin denied the emails were Surkov’s, insisting instead that Surkov does not use email.

The report uses the emails by Surkov and other associates to describe how Russian agents create chaos and use information warfare to fabricate a world in which deciphering truth from their alternate reality is impossible. And the use of these techniques is meant to ultimately further Russian interests.

“Ukraine really is the testing ground for Russia’s hybrid war that it exports to other countries,” she says.

Shandra explains that while the soldiers coming back from the front lines of a military conflict are a reality for Ukraine, this is only a fragment of the conflict raging, albeit the most visible one. Other measures discussed in the emails include: influencing political groups, creating activist groups to bolster separatism in different regions, and one associate even suggested “resorting to terrorist attacks on infrastructure, transport and communications,” the report reads.

“All of these things, all of these actions that Russia is pursuing,” Shandra says, “the ultimate goal is to create this virtual reality and to nudge the target country into making political decisions that Russia wants. And so far it’s been very successful, I would say.”

Peace or capitulation?

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Since the beginning of October, protests have been recurring in the streets of Kyiv. People are protesting President Zelenskiy’s commitment to a tentative peace agreement that would see local elections held in the eastern region known as the Donbass, before the region would be granted special status and autonomy.

The president has said this step follows with his promise to end the conflict, and he vowed that the elections would not be held “under the barrel of a gun.” Protesters say it is capitulation to Russia, and equates to the loss of another region of the country.

These protests show the tension between the desire to defend and protect the integrity of Ukraine, and the desire to end the pain felt by the hundreds of thousands of people who continue to live in the conflict zone.

“One of the problems which Zelenskiy faces right now is everyone wants to end the war,” says Iliya Kusa, an expert in international politics at the Ukrainian Institute for the Future.

“But from the other side they don’t want to come into any agreements with Russia because they see Russia as an aggressor. And so that’s why it’s very difficult for the new government to try to even speak about this topic.”

Furthermore, Goryunova says it’s important to look at what will be left behind even if an end to the conflict is possible.

“It’s about the people who’ve lived under occupation for about five years,” she says. “Watching Russian TV really has a way of affecting people’s consciousness and so some people there, they truly believe that in Ukraine we are fascists and Nazis.”

With his promise to end the conflict, Zelenskiy was elected this spring with 73 per cent of the vote and he continues to enjoy an extraordinarily high approval rating.

Protecting civilians

As winter approaches, so too does one of the most difficult periods for people living in the conflict zone. The International Committee of the Red Cross has tried to help in a myriad of ways over the last five years, from providing insulation and heating supplies for homes, to building roads to communities that were completely cut off from civilization by the conflict.

For some of the people who stayed behind, “if they were to move it would be easier,” says Florence Gillette, head of the ICRC delegation in Ukraine. “The thing is, it’s their home, you know? You’re asking people to uproot themselves.”

Florence Gillette, head of the ICRC delegation in Ukraine, shows a map of the conflict area on the wall of her Kyiv office. She says more than 400 ICRC staff are on the ground in the eastern region every day.

In total, roughly 13,000 Ukrainians have died in the conflict. The United Nations estimates that of those, roughly 3,300 were civilians, with another 9,000 civilians injured. More than 1.5 million people have been displaced within Ukraine.

Gillette hopes peace is within reach, but she worries about civilians paying the price if the attempt fails. She has seen it happen in other circumstances where if both sides aren’t in complete agreement before a troop withdrawal, civilians suffer.

Both Goryunova and Kusa express concerns about whether Russian-backed forces would abide by these proposed agreements. After all, there is already a supposed ceasefire agreement in place, but it is breached daily.

ICRC staff help people cross the contact line that separates the Ukrainian-controlled territory in the west and the Russian controlled territory in the east. The contact line is roughly 400 kilometres long and travel across the line is only permitted at several points. The journey can mean hours waiting in line both in the cold of winter and the heat of summer.

International support

While the conflict in Ukraine might not be top of mind for many, international support is flowing into the country from western allies, including Canada. It comes in the form of military and police training, as well as financial aid and equipment.

If the Trump-Zelenskiy phone conversation has brought anything into the collective consciousness, it is that Ukraine depends on this international aid. The aid and training will never allow the country to outgun Russia, but it at least has allowed it to keep the conflict at bay.

“Even just the boys being here, it is a bit of moral strength,” says military consultant Glen Grant.

“But of course then it actually creates expectations that are not going to be met. Which is that if Russia comes in and attacks, will Canadians actually fight? Or will they just pack up and go home? And this is a serious question. And it’s a question that the Ukrainian side asks every single day.”

Grant, after leaving the British military, has worked to help countries in eastern Europe reform their Soviet-style militaries. He looks at the support of Ukraine and says it’s a cop-out by its foreign allies.

“This is holding back and trying to stay out of things,” Grant said. “I would say NATO at the moment would be much stronger with Ukraine inside than without. Because our primary enemy is Russia. Well, I mean if the people (who) are fighting Russia, if we don’t think that’s important as NATO, then I think we really need, politically, to think again.

“But then they’d have to care about the front line, and maybe it’s about time they did.”

In whose interest?

Grant and Shandra share the same core argument: the international community needs to be involved in Ukraine, out of self-interest if not for the Ukrainians who are dying. But Shandra is more concerned about the manipulative tactics that hearken back to the Cold War.

We already know Russia is capable of spreading a fake story about migrants raping a child in Germany, and meddling in the 2016 American elections, Shandra says, so it’s only a matter of time before the world beyond Ukraine understands how powerful these tactics can be.

“The fact that there are no tanks in Europe, or in Canada for that matter, no missiles being fired towards Canada, that doesn’t mean that the war is not there. Of course it is there.”

Sarah Lawrynuik is a freelance Canadian journalist reporting for CBC and the Toronto Star from east and central Europe as a part of the Gordon Sinclair “Roving Reporter” fellowship.

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Marijuana legalization gets lost in the weeds

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Five Democratic states are poised to create a pot lovers’ paradise, legalizing marijuana from Pennsylvania to Connecticut.

But political infighting — especially among Democrats — could conspire to kill it.

Democratic lawmakers in New York and New Jersey are arguing over criminal justice reforms. In Connecticut, powerful religious leaders torpedoed legalization once before. And all five states must find common ground on taxes to keep up with Massachusetts, where marijuana is already legal.

The political turmoil over marijuana comes as five northeastern Democratic governors announced last month that they had reached an agreement to fully legalize marijuana. Three of the states — New York, New Jersey and Connecticut, where Democrats are in complete control of the government — already have spent months squabbling over the specifics of complex legislation that would legalize cannabis sales.

The sharp divisions among rank-and-file lawmakers are unlikely to recede simply because the states’ governors reached a handshake agreement on broad guardrails for legalizing marijuana.

“There are a lot of details that need to get resolved and different viewpoints on the details,” said New York Assembly Health Committee Chairman Richard Gottfried, who represents Manhattan.

“Last year there were a lot of big complex issues eating up a lot of time that, I think, made resolving marijuana legislation more difficult.”

Just one state — Illinois — has passed legislation establishing recreational sales. The other nine states that allow adults to buy weed for any reason have done so through ballot referendums. The legislative process has proven much messier. Instead of a simple thumbs-up or thumbs-down from voters, every single lawmaker has an opportunity to weigh in on what legislation should look like.

The prospects for passing legalization anytime soon in Pennsylvania look particularly bleak. While Gov. Tom Wolf is a recent convert to the cause, both chambers of the state legislature are controlled by Republicans, and they’ve shown little interest in pursuing recreational marijuana sales.

“The reality is they don’t have the votes,” said Kevin Sabet, CEO of Smart Approaches to Marijuana, which has been fighting legalization efforts around the country. “This is definitely not a slam dunk in any of these states. Pennsylvania — it’s a complete pipe dream that they would get this done in the legislature.”

What’s in the agreement?

The five governors only agreed on broad principles to guide their efforts. Chief among the policy recommendations is setting a similar tax rate on cannabis sales as a means of leveling the market across the region. The five governors also pledged to limit the number of licenses for cannabis businesses, craft policies to prioritize the inclusion of small business owners, develop criminal justice reform programs to improve the lives of ex-offenders and develop uniform law enforcement and public health standards for policing the industry.

Most lawmakers who support legalization praised the governors for leading on the issue. The summit was prompted in part by concerns about the vaping crisis, which has sickened more than 2,000 people and led to at least 39 deaths, according to the CDC. Most of the lung illnesses have been tied to THC vapes, primarily from the black market.

“People realize the time has come,” said New York Assembly Majority Leader Crystal Peoples-Stokes, a top legalization advocate. “The fact that it hasn’t been legalized and regulated allows the black market to put products out there that we know are hurting people.”

But the broad framework agreed to is unlikely to make it much easier to reach accord on specific policy details.

“We are going to be losing serious economic activity,” added Sen. Liz Krueger (D-Manhattan), the lead sponsor of legalization legislation, pointing out that New York state residents are already buying weed from legal dispensaries. “If you go to a cannabis store in the Berkshires — a half hour from Albany — you can’t help but notice all of the license plates are from New York in the parking lot.”

Current legislative proposals diverge on policy details

The cannabis legalization proposals that have emerged from each state are unique. New Jersey’s legislation, agreed to by each of the state’s top Democrats after months of negotiation, would tax cannabis at $42 per ounce at the cultivation level. Local municipalities could impose their own taxes as well. Legislation advanced in Connecticut, which was never voted on, would have imposed a $35 per ounce tax on cultivators, plus local fees and a sales tax. Recent legislation introduced by Pennsylvania lawmakers would levy a 17.5 percent tax at the point-of-sale.

“In terms of setting a goal of being as unified as possible, that is a worthwhile exercise,” said Connecticut state Rep. Steve Stafstrom, who co-chairs the House Joint Committee on Judiciary. “Do I suspect, at the end of the day, that there will be certain pieces of this that one state wants to do one way, and other states want to do another way?

“Of course.”

A half-dozen Democratic lawmakers and staff members in Connecticut who spoke with POLITICO indicated it would be an uphill battle just to get a cannabis legalization measure over the finish line, regardless of whatever agreement Gov. Ned Lamont hatched with his counterparts in the Northeast.

A package of three bills that would have legalized cannabis, designated new programs for marijuana-related tax revenues and blazed new criminal justice reforms collapsed after facing resistance from the state’s black and Latino faith leaders. And while lawmakers briefly floated the idea of moving a bill that would have created a ballot question on adult-use, that also stalled.

“I confess, and this is probably a good example probably of white privilege, I didn’t appreciate the ingrained resistance to legalization from communities that have been battling [with] it for so long,” said state Rep. Mike D’Agostino, a Democrat committee chairman who represents the New Haven suburbs. “We need to do a good job of going out and listening. And also saying, ‘Here’s what’s in our bills. Here’s how we’re trying to address the social justice concerns and the economic concerns.’”

Perhaps just as importantly, efforts to legalize adult use in other states require some level of common understanding between lawmakers and the chief executive.

Pennsylvania‘s Wolf publicly announced his support for cannabis legalization in September, a little less than a month before the multi-state framework was released. His appearance on the dais alongside Cuomo, Lamont and New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy on Oct. 17 was a surprise to state Sen. Daylin Leach, a Democrat who introduced an adult use bill earlier this year.

“Was the Legislature consulted? No,” Leach told POLITICO, adding that he supported any effort on the part of Wolf to “move the ball forward.”

“There may be places where things fit together, and places where they don’t,” Leach said. “Each state needs to concentrate primarily on getting a law passed that works for our state.”

If the five northeastern states are able to overcome the formidable hurdles they face and create a sprawling five-state marijuana marketplace, it could create a tipping point in the legalization debate nationwide, said Karen O’Keefe, director of state policies at the pro-legalization Marijuana Policy Project. That would mean nearly half the country would be living in states where anyone over the age of 21 can buy weed for whatever purpose they choose.

“It becomes increasingly untenable,” O’Keefe said, “to have all of this conduct be federally illegal when you have nearly 150 million people living in states where it’s legal and regulated.”

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The billionaires funding politics, ranked by size of donation in 2018

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Las Vegas Sands CEO Sheldon Adelson and his wife Miriam Adelson gave more money to political candidates than any other Americans in 2018.

A small group of ultra-wealthy Americans pumps a lot of money into politics.

We took a look at the top 25 donors who funded American politics in 2018 and found that the list consists of, among others, an assortment of financiers, heirs, and entrepreneurs.

The contributions of some of the largest donors — such as Sheldon and Miriam Adelson, George Soros and Tom Steyer — are well known, while other donors, like Jeff Bezos, are better known for their careers.

Interestingly, one well-known political donors — Charles Koch — did not make the list. Koch and his now-deceased brother David donated $1,816,650 to Republicans through their company Koch industries in 2018, according to The Center for Responsive Politics. To make this list, their donations would have needed to top $6.5 million.

Business Insider previously reported that public affairs rank as the eighth-most popular cause that billionaires donate to. Only 12.4% of billionaires reported making donations to politics in 2018, according to Wealth-X‘s 2019 Billionaire Census.

Collectively, the 25 billionaires and billionaire couples on the list totaled a whopping $ in political donations in 2018, data from The Center for Responsive Politics shows.

Keep reading to learn more about the country’s biggest political donors, ranked in order of their donations during the 2018 election cycle by The Center for Responsive Politics. Each donor’s net worth, where available, was sourced from Forbes unless otherwise specified. Their party affiliations are listed according to The Center for Responsive Politics.

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Pallister says Canada can unite on climate action if partisan politics set aside

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Terry Pedwell, The Canadian Press


Published Friday, November 8, 2019 12:17PM EST


Last Updated Friday, November 8, 2019 1:58PM EST

OTTAWA — Giving clear indications that he’s prepared to broker a truce between the federal Liberals and his more disgruntled Prairie counterparts, Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister said he offered strategies to the prime minister Friday for uniting the country.

“I came in peace,” Pallister said after a 45-minute meeting with Justin Trudeau in his Parliament Hill office.

“I’m a friendly Manitoban looking to help in any way I can to restore a sense of faith in the future of our country.”

One such strategy Pallister eluded to was to turn the climate change debate on its head, making the issue a unifying force rather than what it has been so far — a point of heated and often partisan division.

“Fighting climate change is a unifying project,” Pallister insisted while criticizing Trudeau for making it a wedge issue in the recent federal election.

“A political leader can divide. A prime minister should unite,” he said.

“So, as we move forward, we should unite around fighting climate change and we should not be caught up in a debate about a subset of a subset,” referring to Ottawa’s insistence on a national carbon tax as a central plank of any plan to curb greenhouse gas emissions.

Trudeau’s relationship with many provincial premiers is tense, particularly over his decision to impose a price on pollution in any province without an equivalent system of its own, including Manitoba.

Pallister opposes Trudeau’s plan, but not carbon taxes in general and is still hoping the prime minister will allow provinces to create their own plans to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

The prime minister acknowledged the divide between his government’s policies and those of Alberta’s Jason Kenney and Saskatchewan’s Scott Moe in a news conference the day after the federal Liberals were reduced to a minority in the House of Commons without a single seat in the two provinces.

And he promised to support the West as it faces economic struggles, particularly in the oil patch.

In the days that have followed the Oct. 21 vote, a simmering separatist movement in Alberta has gained momentum under the Wexit umbrella, a name seemingly created to mimic the Brexit movement aimed at separating Britain from the European Union.

The group’s founder, Peter Downing, earlier this week filed paperwork with Elections Canada to form a federal Wexit Alberta party that could, in his words, do for Western Canada what the Bloc Quebecois does for Quebec.

Pallister said he sees frustrations building in the West, not just around a failure to build pipelines to get western energy products to international markets outside of the United States, but also over the perceived snail’s pace of getting just about any other project underway. He blamed it on federal regulations designed to protect the environment.

To alleviate some of those frustrations, Pallister said Ottawa needs to “get things done,” such as building infrastructure that will mitigate the effects of climate change.

“The mayor of Calgary, for example, has raised concerns as I have repeatedly about flood protections that we need to get built,” Pallister said.

“We’re trying to build flood protection to give people their lives back in our province but we’ve been, after hundreds of meetings and millions of dollars, we’re not sure we’re getting as much progress as I would like.”

Just before he and Pallister went into their private meeting, Trudeau told the premier he hoped the two leaders could work together on a number of fronts.

“Obviously there’s a need to continue to invest, to grow opportunities for Manitobans . . . through infrastructure including climate change mitigation and adaptation infrastructure,” Trudeau said during a photo op.

Pallister said he and the prime minister also spoke about ways to improve the lives of Indigenous Canadians in his province as well as the recent spike in the number of homicides and violent gang and drug-related crimes in Manitoba.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 8, 2019.

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