Canada is courting international support for its plan to reject Russian passports given to Ukrainian citizens in the parts of Ukraine occupied by Kremlin-backed separatists.
Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland says Canada has presented technical details of a plan to allies attending this week’s Ukraine reform conference in Toronto so they can follow suit.
“We very much encourage our partners who share our support for Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity to join us in taking this step,” she said Wednesday.
Canada won’t allow anyone travelling from Ukraine’s occupied eastern Donbass and Luhansk regions to use a Russian passport to enter the country, Freeland said.
“People who are citizens of Ukraine, which is the case for people living in occupied Donbass and Luhansk, are very welcome to apply for a visa to come visit Canada using their Ukrainian passport,” she said.
“Canada, however, considers the issuance of Russian passports to these people to be a further act of aggression against Ukraine.”
Freeland didn’t have details on whether anyone from eastern Ukraine has tried to travel to Canada on a Russian passport. It is also not clear how Ukrainian citizens living under Russian occupation might leave the region to travel abroad.
Freeland says Canada has a duty to denounce the Kremlin’s passport scheme because it represents one more attack on Ukrainian sovereignty.
In 2014, Russia annexed Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula in the worst breach of Europe’s borders since the Second World War. Canada and its western allies view that annexation as illegal. Russia has also fomented a pro-Kremlin insurgency in the country’s east that has left more than 13,000 dead.
Unlike Crimea, Russia doesn’t currently claim Donbass and Luhansk as Russian territory. But many Ukrainian citizens there are ethnically and culturally Russian; if Russia gives them passports and treats them as its own people, it might use that to assert a right to the land they live on. For years, Russia’s President Vladimir Putin has said Russia has a duty to protect Russians regardless of where they live.
The situation deteriorated further this past November when Russia detained 24 Ukrainian sailors and seized three ships in the Kerch Strait, which connects the Sea of Azov and the Black Sea off the Crimean coast.
Last month, a United Nations maritime tribunal said Russia must free the sailors and their ships. Russia says the tribunal has no jurisdiction over it.
Freeland has been hosting the international conference that is trying to help Ukraine build its battered economy in the face of its five-year-old conflict with Russia. Participants include political representatives from more than three dozen countries as well as representatives from the world’s leading financial institutions, including the International Monetary Fund.
The meeting marked the North American debut of Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, a popular actor and comedian with no previous political experience, who easily won this spring’s presidential election, unseating Petro Poroshenko. Zelenskiy met Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and the two leaders affirmed the shared bonds between the two countries.
Zelenskiy was also trying to allay fears that he was not up to the task of governing given his lack of political experience.
In a meeting with Trudeau, Ukraine’s president spoke about the “about the need for strategic advice on governance,” Freeland said.
“This is a true area of Canadian expertise and we are pleased to be starting right away,” she said.
Canada also contributed another $45 million to its Ukraine-reform efforts, topping up the $785 million in military, legal, financial, development and political assistance it has given since 2014.
Zelenskiy campaigned on the need to bring more reforms to Ukraine, to rid his country of corruption and make it more democratic. He has also worked a breakneck pace, dissolving Ukraine’s parliament and pushing ahead with new elections on July 21, months ahead of schedule.
The Kremlin offensive into Ukraine in 2014 came at a time when it was poised for deeper integration with the European Union and Putin wanted to keep Ukraine in Russia’s sphere of control.
Kurt Volker, the U.S. Special Representative for Ukraine Negotiations and a former NATO ambassador, said Ukraine could eventually resist the pull of the Kremlin if it stays the course and pursues its Western ambitions with the help of its allies.
“Ukraine should be a stable, secure, growing, prosperous democracy that is connected to Europe. And the more that’s true, the more Russia is losing at its principal goal: it wants to make Ukraine a subservient part of a Russian sphere of influence again,” Volker told a small group of journalists on the margins of the summit.
“That’s not going happen. The more Ukraine is successful, the more it is apparent to Russia it is failing in that objective,” he said. ”And then the idea of continuing this war is … pointless.”
Mike Blanchfield, The Canadian Press