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By Lubomyr Luciuk

July 2017


        Enemies call each other names. They also tell fibs about the foe. I was recently reminded of this as I moved along the frontlines in Ukraine’s Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts. These territories were invaded by the Russians in February 2014. A war, euphemistically described by Kyiv’s politicians as an ‘Anti-Terrorist Operation,’ is still being fought there, daily.

        Vulgarities aside, many Ukrainian soldiers have taken to mocking the so-called “separatists” by calling them vatniks, the name used for the padded winter jackets worn by the Russian military, in this context meaning their opponents are nothing more than a dull-witted bunch of drunks and criminals. For their part the “separatists” and their Russian backers have tried to retaliate, ridiculing Ukrainians by referring to them as ukrop, the word for dill, which many Ukrainians admittedly do enjoy with just about anything they may be eating, from boiled potatoes to borsch. Instead of taking offence, however, Ukraine’s soldiers and even the public have embraced this once-derogatory term for their nation, so robbing it of offensiveness. You can buy a T-shirt declaring yourself an ukrop from many stalls found along the roadway descending from St Andrew’s Church in Kyiv’s upper town to the historically commercial neighbourhood of Podil. I did.

        The Russians also circulated some rather odd rumours, insisting, for example, that Ukrainian troops were killing Eurasian bullfinches because their white-blue-red colouration was reminiscent of the Russian tricolour, a nefarious plan apparently intended to also secure more territory for a local species of titmouse, a bird whose blue and yellow plumage evokes Ukraine’s national flag. I saw both types of bird flying about  – ornithologists need not worry.

        Another apocryphal claim the Russians spread was that Ukrainian troops were chowing down on local infants; with black humour the Ukrainians admitted to the ‘truth’ of this fairytale while advising those spreading the story that they too would relish eating babies if only they knew how to properly prepare them as a food dish – perhaps by adding a dash or two of ukrop?

        Now, in fairness, some Ukrainians also have rather strange ideas about this war. Two friends of a soldier on leave in the western Ukrainian region of Bukovyna heavily overindulged while celebrating his homecoming. The next day, when the three lads went to a local market, the two merrymakers from the previous evening were looking rather worse for wear, shuffling along with the soldier, heads bowed. Jokingly, the veteran proclaimed every volunteer at the front was gifted two Russian rabs (slaves), like those straggling behind him, as a reward for having served – provoking an outcry as some gullible folk began complaining their returned sons hadn’t received their prizes. This, they exclaimed excitedly, was proof of official corruption as officers were “obviously” cheating enlisted men by taking more than their “fair share” of two prisoners each. In fact, while many a Russian trooper has been captured by the Ukrainians – Moscow’s insistence that there are no Russian soldiers on Ukrainian territory is nothing but a lie – most of the latter are exchanged for Ukrainian POWs. It is deemed better to secure the release of one’s own people rather than holding onto ‘guests’ no one wants on Ukrainian soil.

        Travelling in this war-devastated region I couldn’t help but recall the old children’s rhyme: “Sticks and stones may break my bones but names will never hurt me.” From having observed the patriotism and pluck of Ukraine’s fighting men and women I know they won’t be beaten by the mere smears and jeers of their enemies. But, however courageous they are, these 21st century Cossacks do need the West’s help, not just ritual condemnations of Russian imperialism and selective economic sanctions, but the delivery of defensive weaponry to match what the Russian Federation has deployed against them. If so provisioned they say they will win their just war because they are fighting for independence and for Ukraine’s return to its rightful place in Europe.



        Looking out and down from the inside of a Ukrainian Armed Forces Mil Mi-8 helicopter I surveyed Ukraine as I have never done before – marvelling at that country’s measureless tracts of sunflowers and wheat fields nourished by the fertility of its chornozem soil – understanding by seeing it from this height why this land, known from ancient Greek times as the “breadbasket of Europe,” has again and again been made a ravin by the depredations of rapacious invaders. Since February 2014 the trespassers have been the Russians, whose army seized Crimea then attacked in eastern Ukraine, occupying much of the Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts (provinces). To this day they despoil there and so threaten the peace of Europe.

        But the Russians are encountering resistance and an increasingly dogged one at that. From the very start of their unprovoked invasion of Ukrainian territory they found themselves impeded by volunteers who rushed forward from all parts of their homeland to thwart the aggressor. The bravery and sacrifices of what we might well describe as Ukrainian ‘minutemen’ helped blunt and then contain Moscow’s imperialistic designs. And, since November 2014, Canada, stalwartly determined to help Ukraine remain sovereign, stable, and secure, has been assisting in the enhancement of Ukraine’s defensive capabilities. As part of a Multinational Joint Commission, including the United States and United Kingdom, about 200 Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) specialists, currently drawn largely from the 3rd Canadian Division and deployed on 6 month rotations, have been training Ukrainian troopers at the International Peacekeeping and Security Centre (IPSC) located near the hamlet of Starychi in Lviv oblast. Other Canadians are teaching at the Ukrainian Ministry of Defence’s Demining Centre in Kamyanets-Podilsky.

        The IPSC is found within the Yavorivsky military polyhon, a 40,000 square kilometre training area, the largest in all of Europe, created by the razing of 29 western Ukrainian villages at Stalin’s command. My maternal grandmother’s was one of them; her home once stood no more than a few dozen metres inside this restricted zone’s front gates. 

        As of 1 July 2017 the CAF Joint Task Force-Ukraine had trained some 5,000 Ukrainian soldiers. Canada has pledged its support for ‘Operation Unifier’ until at least March 2019. We may need to stay longer for Vladimir Putin, the KGB man in the Kremlin and ‘president-in-perpetuity’ of the Russian Federation, certainly knows Russia can never be an empire without dominating Ukraine. Restoring an imperial Russian realm remains his fundamental goal, no matter how many of his soldiers’ lives are squandered paying the butcher’s bill.

        I was able to visit with our troops at the Demining Centre and the IPSC in a day, the mobility of a Mi-8 and the courteousness of Lieutenant-General Paul Wynnyk, Commander Canadian Army, and his accommodating staff, facilitating this sally. I learned more during this one summer’s day than I do in most weeks. Let me also establish how it was agreed, well before we left, that I could write as I please, prohibited only from photographing individual soldiers or otherwise identifying them, a reasonable condition. I also travelled at my expense. And when I took leave of the General’s party it was clear that if I went further, up to the frontlines in eastern Ukraine, I would be doing so privately and entirely at my own risk. I did. Before I departed, however, my aim was to find out whether this Canadian mission was beneficial only in one direction – presumably our side teaching as Ukrainians do all the learning – or if there was more to it than just a paternalistic, one-way relationship.

        I got my answer at the Demining Centre. Quite by chance I overheard a conversation between the General and a Canadian officer who, when asked if he had learned from Ukraine’s sappers, responded with an emphatic “Absolutely!” and then went on to describe how the ‘lessons learned’ by Ukrainians engaged in the euphemistically-named Anti-Terrorist Operations (ATO) zone of Ukraine were being incorporated into the advanced training offered to military students. Canadian, British, and American soldiers’ lives will be saved in future because Ukrainian troops are bringing hard-won intelligence, paid for with their flesh and blood on the battlefield, and sharing it with their Western friends.

        Later in the day I would, time and again, get positive responses from Canadian soldiers, including two graduates of The Royal Military College of Canada, whenever I asked if they were benefitting from this deployment. Indeed, most said they would like to stay longer, to learn even more. As for the Ukrainians they have welcomed our troops as comrades-in-arms and, to a soldier, stressed how grateful they are to Canada for standing with them as they fight what has truly become Ukraine’s war of independence. The Ukrainians, by the way, believe they will win it. From what I saw of their professionalism and pluck, not only in western Ukraine but on the eastern front, I think they’re right. For do remember what Putin seems to have forgotten - this is not the first time in their history that Ukrainians have fended off a foe. They remain unbowed.



Lubomyr Luciuk is a professor of political geography at The Royal Military College of Canada. His recent fact-finding trip to the war zone was  facilitated by “Free People” – a volunteer humanitarian organization in Ukraine.






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