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They're doing everything from raising private funds to providing supplies to troops – and even taking up arms on the front lines. As Mark MacKinnon reports, Ukrainian-Canadians aren't content leaving the defence of their homeland up to Ottawa.

Reading time 13 minutes
(Max Avdeev for The Globe and Mail)

The fight for Ukraine is associated, naturally enough, with the blue-and-yellow hues of the country’s flag. But in the struggle to hold back Russian-backed rebels in the east, a second pair of colours is increasingly seen: the red and white of the Canadian flag.

In the Kiev headquarters of Army SOS, a volunteer organization that aids Ukraine’s warriors in the field, the Maple Leaf hangs in both the warehouse on the first floor and the drone factory upstairs. Until recently, Canadian flags were often included with supplies delivered by Army SOS to the front – which likely explains why Canada’s colours have been seen flying on the front lines outside of the rebel capital of Donetsk.

And the flag is echoed in the red Roots sweatshirt worn by Lenna Koszarny, head of the Kiev arm of the Ukrainian Canadian Congress, as she presents official Canadian aid to troops. The gesture is one illustration of how Canada’s powerful Ukrainian diaspora is not content to leave the defence of the homeland up to Ottawa.

“Is the diaspora at war with Russia? Absolutely,” says Ms. Koszarny, 45. “The diaspora is helping Ukraine defend itself. How do we do that? In any which way we can.”

Welcome to Canada’s unofficial war. It’s being fought on several fronts. In Canada, the Ukrainian lobby, led by the Ukrainian Canadian Congress, pressures Ottawa to aid the government of President Petro Poroshenko. But the community also raises funds for its own improvised stream of aid, via organizations such as Army SOS. At the individual level, people have taken up tasks ranging from providing front-line technical help to playing key roles in Ukraine’s propaganda campaign.

And some – a handful – have taken up arms. While Canadians who have gone to join the fight in Syria have had their passports revoked, at least one Ukrainian-Canadian who joined a pro-government militia and fought in the Lugansk region has returned to Canada to help raise money for Army SOS. He hopes to recruit other Canadians to the front line.

This uncharted territory is not without risks. Most obviously, the fundraising campaign is going where no country, including Canada, is willing to go – supplying sometimes-lethal equipment to Ukrainian fighters, including irregulars. By circumventing official channels in both Canada and Ukraine, activists risk playing into the agendas of both Russian President Vladimir Putin and Ukrainian militias whose patriotism is tainted by extremism.

Warehouse full of war supplies

The shelves in SOS’s Kiev warehouse are piled high with supplies for war: dark green uniforms, sturdy black boots, white winter camouflage nets.

Upstairs is a workshop where a team of volunteers gathers nightly to tinker with handmade surveillance drones that they will take to the front and fly over territory controlled by a Russian-backed militia.

Other volunteers gleefully show off new artillery-targeting software that they’ve installed on tablet computers. The software is designed by a team led by Bohdan Kupych, a Ukrainian-Canadian resident of Kiev.

Ukraine’s myriad volunteer battalions are famed for their bravery, as well as for their sometimes-extreme nationalism. Along the front line, they are often the ones engaged in the toughest fighting against the rebel army that Kiev and NATO say is armed by Moscow.

Lenna Koszarny, head of the Kiev chapter of the Ukrainian-Canadian Congress, overseeing delivering of official Canadian aid to Ukrainian troops in a base near Kramatorsk. (Anton Skyba for The Globe and Mail)

Army SOS says it has raised and spent just more than $1-million since it was founded last summer. (Ms. Koszarny estimates the amount of overall aid raised for Ukraine by the Canadian diaspora million over the past year at between $10-million and $15-million.) Some of Army SOS money was used to buy parts for the homemade drones, but more went toward 30 vehicles, mostly Humvees and pickup trucks, that it has shipped to the front. The group says this unusual aid is needed because of endemic corruption inside the army.

“We don’t specifically help the army or any battalion … we deliver to those at the front and put it directly into the hands of the soldiers,” says Yaroslav Tropinov, a Kiev investment banker who co-founded Army SOS after he saw the Ukrainian army humiliated by Russia’s annexation of Crimea last March. “We don’t consult with army headquarters – we go around the corruption and the stealing.”

While cash donations are pooled and used where Army SOS deems the need to be greatest, many in the diaspora have bought goods themselves and shipped them to the Kiev warehouse. Mr. Tropinov says that while the Ukrainian diaspora in the United States has been the biggest source of clothes and toys for the families of soldiers, its Canadian counterpart has been a bigger contributor in terms of military supplies. Hence the flags in the warehouse.

Richard Hareychuk, a 59-year-old Toronto optometrist, says he raises funds for Army SOS because it gets help to those actually doing the fighting, regardless of whether it’s the regular army or the volunteer battalions.

He says he worried that official Canadian aid wasn’t getting to those doing the bulk of the fighting. “We heard a lot of stories that aid would arrive, they would show it for the cameras … and then in terms of distribution, I heard a lot of different stories. I didn’t hear very much about stuff being driven to the front.”

Last year, Mr. Hareychuk and other members of the Ukrainian-Canadian community bought a $12,000 drone, which they christened Prometheus before shipping it to Army SOS. Prometheus flew 10 intelligence-gathering missions over the rebel-held regions of Donetsk and Lugansk before it was shot down by the separatist forces last month. Army SOS has also purchased parts for sniper rifles and tripwire detonators.

A volunteer at a workshop in Kiev builds a drone. (Max Avdeev for The Globe and Mail)

Mr. Hareychuk says the effort to buy lethal weapons is just getting started. “The initial call … was ‘we don’t have boots.’ There were guys [at the front line] in running shoes. Now that the guys have the boots, we’ve decided to take to it to the next level.”

Mr. Kupych, an executive at a Kiev-based software firm who has helped oversee the development of the targeting software distributed by Army SOS, says the feeling in the diaspora – and among Ukrainians in general – is that everyone should do whatever they can. “Most of what we do is defensive,” the Toronto native says, speaking of the volunteer movement in general. “But, as [President] Poroshenko said, you’re not going to win a war with winter outfits and sleeping bags.”

Beyond groups such as Army SOS are even more informal – and direct – contacts between the Ukrainian troops at the front and the diaspora in Canada.

Mychailo Wynnyckyj, a well-known Ukrainian-Canadian political analyst who teaches at the Kyiv Mohyla Business School, says a shopkeeper neighbour has joined a mechanized brigade of the regular army. The neighbour mentioned that his unit lacked encrypted communication equipment; Prof. Wynnyckyj notified a friend in Montreal, who donated $5,000 to buy the gear.

“It sounds very chaotic, but when you put these initiatives together, this is how the Ukrainian army gets 60 per cent of its aid,” Prof. Wynnyckyj says. He adds that there were examples of “NATO-standard” weaponry that had reached the front, though he wasn’t sure of how they were supplied. “Bottom-up, grassroots networks can be more powerful than the state machine, because the state machine can be corrupted.”

The front lines

The two trucks bouncing along the potholed and frost-framed roads of the eastern Ukraine war zone betray little hint of their cargo. The tarp covering the back of one advertises “Everything for Home and Garden.” The other looks even plainer – save for a bumper sticker bearing a crude reference to Mr. Putin.

This is how Canada sends its official military aid to Ukraine. Inside the trucks are several thousand boxes dispatched from the Department of National Defence. They contain flame-resistant green winter uniforms and water-resistant boots.

Soldiers of 3rd bat. 81st brigade examining new boots that were sent from Canada. (Anton Skyba for The Globe and Mail)

Sitting in front of the truck with the anti-Putin slogan is Ms. Koszarny of the Ukrainian Canadian Congress. When the convoy arrives at an abandoned school that’s been converted into a military base in Konstantynivka – a former industrial town just 30 kilometres from the rebel front line – she gives the troops a message along with the new kit.

“We pressed the Canadian government to give as much aid as they can to Ukraine,” the mother of two says. “There are 20 million Ukrainians outside Ukraine doing all they can to support you.”

They are, especially in Canada. Earlier this month, the English-language Kyiv Post printed a list that ranked Prime Minister Stephen Harper among the 10 “most influential promoters” of Ukraine in the international community. The article noted that “perhaps Stephen Harper would not support Ukraine that actively if Canada did not have the world’s largest diaspora community.”

Indeed, Canada is often the Ukrainian government’s most fervent foreign backer, going first and furthest in terms of aid for Ukraine, including non-lethal military supplies and sanctions against the Kremlin. (However, Britain arguably leaped deepest into the confrontation on Tuesday when Prime Minister David Cameron announced he was sending 75 military advisers to help train the Ukrainian army.)

Prof. Wynnyckyj says the diaspora deserves much of the credit for putting the Ukraine file onto the desks of politicians in Ottawa.

“The cause is just, but it is in the limelight and the attention of politicians because there is a large and organized Ukrainian-Canadian community that brings it to the attention of politicians. … The Conservatives have done an excellent job of supporting Ukraine and the Ukrainian cause.” The tradeoff is obvious: “There’s a lot of support for the Conservatives in the Ukrainian community,” he says. The gratitude of a community once seen as favouring the Liberal Party could tip key ridings in the Conservatives’ favour, particularly in and around cities with large Ukrainian populations, such as Toronto and Winnipeg.

Many of the most active members of the 1.2 million Ukrainian-Canadian diaspora had parents and grandparents who fled Ukraine either during the Stalin-engineered famine of the 1930s or the crackdown on Ukrainian nationalism that followed the Second World War. To them, this war is just the latest chapter in a long struggle to free their homeland from Moscow’s grasp. Russia, to them, is an eternal enemy.

Piotr Dutkiewicz, director of the Centre for Governance and Public Management at Carleton University, says that Canada has squandered the “very good” relations it had with Moscow prior to the conflict in favour of a one-sided pro-Kiev stance.

“We were in an almost ideal position to be good negotiators and brokers of peace,” Prof. Dutkiewicz says. Instead, “Ukrainian organizations in Canada are forcefully and loudly feeding the anti-Russian foreign policy.”

The Russian embassy in Ottawa did not respond to a request for comment.

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko meets with Harper several hours after Poroshenko was sworn in June 7, 2014, in Kiev. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

Canada’s prominent role in the war in Ukraine is the latest iteration of the loudly pro-Ukraine stance that Ottawa – in both Liberal and Conservative periods – has taken since 1991, when Canada was the first government in the world to recognize Ukraine’s independence from the collapsing Soviet Union. Government-to-government support in the 1990s was accompanied by backing for the political opposition in the early 2000s, as the country drifted back into Moscow’s orbit. The Canadian embassy in Kiev provided startup cash to some of the civil-society groups that helped organize the Orange Revolution, which swept the pro-Western government of Viktor Yushchenko to power in 2004.

While the 2010 election of the Moscow-backed Viktor Yanukovych effectively undid the Orange Revolution, the embassy continued to pour money into independent media and organizations opposed to Mr. Yanukovych’s authoritarian style. When new pro-Western protests erupted in late 2013, Canada again joined a consortium of Western embassies in Kiev that provided cash and advice to the protesters.

A Canadian embassy source told The Globe and Mail that “millions” were dished out by Canada over several years to support both the anti-government Hromadske television network and Internet news portal and non-governmental organizations such as Opora and Euromaidan SOS that played organizing roles in the uprising against Mr. Yanukovych.

Canada’s involvement was so well-known in Kiev that embassy staffer Inna Tsarkova had her car torched by pro-Yanukovych thugs during the protests.

Ms. Koszarny, a London, Ont., native who is chief executive officer of an investment bank in Kiev when she’s not driving around the battlefields of eastern Ukraine, speaks glowingly of Mr. Harper. Her job, as she sees it, is to make sure that Canada’s official support doesn’t waver. Rattled by online rumours that some Canadian military supplies delivered last year had been sold for cash on local markets – and worried that Canada and other countries would curtail their help – Ms. Koszarny and a team of volunteers began trailing the delivery trucks into the war zone, taking photographs and ensuring the Canadian aid goes to the units and soldiers it’s intended for. Her recent trip to Konstantynivka took her to four other stops near the front line.

On the day she sports the Roots sweatshirt, Ms. Koszarny is accompanied by Volodomyr Nabir, a 22-year-old soldier from western Ukraine who returned to Kiev in January following a 13-day stint fighting in the epic, but ultimately failed, effort to hold Donetsk airport against a rebel siege. He says the Canadian aid and the knowledge that the diaspora was behind the war effort was crucial to the defenders’ being able to hold out as long as they did.

“Without the volunteers, we would have frozen and died a long time ago,” Mr. Nabir says. Smiling ear-to-ear at the compliment, Ms. Koszarny leans over and gives the young soldier a warm hug.

Other Ukrainian-Canadians have waded even more directly into the conflict. The new strategic director of Ukraine Today – an English-language network that aims to counteract the spin promulgated by the Kremlin-funded RT (Russia Today) news channel – is London, Ont., native Lada Roslycky. While Ms. Roslycky, the author of a book on soft power, avoids the words “propaganda war,” her reporters see themselves as being on the media front line.

“Russia is fighting an information war,” says Ukraine Today editor Steven Brese, a 29-year-old Edmonton native. “I hope this channel can help shine a light on what’s happening here.”

Volunteer battalions

Some in Kiev worry that the volunteer battalions supported by Army SOS pose a future threat to the internal stability of Ukraine, whenever this war ends. Half a dozen of the most battle-hardened groups (and also Ukraine Today) are funded by Ihor Kolomoisky, a billionaire oligarch who is increasingly at odds with President Poroshenko about military strategy and the overall direction of the country. Some of the battalions affiliated with Mr. Kolomoisky have earned notoriety with their use of far-right rhetoric and iconography.

Fears that the battalions – and thus the aid they receive from the Canadian diaspora – could later cause trouble inside Ukraine were heightened last week in the wake of the separatists’ capture of the strategic transportation hub of Debaltseve. Amid conflicting reports of how many Ukrainian soldiers and volunteers were killed and wounded during a chaotic retreat from the town, Semen Semechenko, the head of the Kolomoisky-funded Donbass Battalion, said he would establish a “parallel” headquarters for 17 of the volunteer militias, moving them further outside Kiev’s control.

“Would I like these [fighters] to be my neighbour? Probably not. But when you’re fighting a war, the enemy of my enemy is my friend.”
Professor Mychailo Wynnyckyj

“There is a clear danger from the volunteer battalions and Kolomoisky at some stage,” says an adviser to the Ukrainian government who asked to remain anonymous because of the sensitivity of the topic. “If there is a huge military defeat [suffered by the Ukrainian military], the battalions could come to Kiev and stage a coup.”

That view, to many in the diaspora, is alarmist. Marko Suprun, a Winnipeg native now living in Kiev, co-founded Patriot Defence, a volunteer group that raises money in Ukraine and the diaspora to provide medical kits and combat medical training to both the regular army and the volunteer battalions. He called the debate around the volunteer fighters “ridiculous.”

“Out there in the [war] zone, Azov, Donbass, Dnipr [three of the most prominent volunteer battalions], and the Ukrainian forces, they just work together,” says Mr. Suprun, who in the past has worked as a translator for The Globe and Mail. It’s the Russian side, he says, that’s flooding the war zone with mercenaries from all over the former Soviet Union.

And the threat posed by Mr. Kolomoisky’s battalions? “A lot of people are saying he’s getting too powerful, etc., etc. But for the time being, a lot of people are happy he’s there,” Prof. Wynnyckyj says. “Would I like these people [fighters in the right-wing battalions] to be my neighbour? Probably not. But when you’re fighting a war, the enemy of my enemy is my friend.”

The Globe and Mail knows of at least two Canadians who played front-line roles fighting in the Kolomoisky-sponsored battalions, and a third who is enlisting in the Ukrainian army.

One of the fighters, who goes by the nom de guerre “Lemko,” fought as a member of the far-right Azov battalion near the port city of Mariupol last summer. He told reporters there that he was a “national socialist” who had faced persecution in Canada for his political beliefs. “Ukraine should be for Ukrainians,” he was quoted saying. “We don’t need the European idea of multicultural extremism here. Ukraine must protect its cultural and ethnic integrity.” (The Azov Battalion’s symbol is a modified version of the “Wolfsangel” symbol used by some Nazi units in the Second World War.)

Lemko is also believed to have led a group of protesters that stormed the Canadian embassy and forced it to close during the Maidan protests last year. His current whereabouts are unclear.

Another Ukrainian-Canadian fighter, Nazar Volynets – a 30-year-old construction worker and artist who was born in western Ukraine – is now back in Canada and will be a featured speaker at the Feb. 28 Army SOS fundraiser organized by Mr. Hareychuk, the Toronto optometrist.

Nazar Volynets's Facebook profile picture.

Ex-comrades-in-arms say Mr. Volynets fought last summer and fall in the Lugansk region as a member of the Aidar Battalion, a group accused last year by Amnesty International of war crimes, including abductions and “possible executions.” The group, which is partly funded by Mr. Kolomoisky, has since been folded into the army’s 24th Assault Battalion.

Mr. Volynets says he went to war with no equipment, other than two grenades, until he commandeered a rifle on the battlefield. “The volunteers, they come with what they have, some have shotguns or self-made guns. Maybe only 20 per cent had guns,” he says in an interview conducted via Skype. But the volunteers, he says, made up for the lack of equipment and training with adrenalin and patriotism. “Their morale is high, they are eager to fight.”

Mr. Volynets says there was no question in his mind that he had been fighting against well-trained Russian troops (“because of their tactics”). He calls for Canada and other Western governments to send weapons to the Ukrainian army and volunteer battalions.

He says he plans to return soon to the front line – with some company, he hopes. “I think I will go back with some kind of group of Canadians. That would be really nice, because this is a fight for democracy. … I think Western societies have to fight for what they have, because Putin is not going to stop.”