Media Ignores 10th Anniversary of Canadian-Backed Coup

Ukraine marked two important anniversaries this week but the Canadian media ignored one of them. Many stories highlighted that it’s been two years since Russia illegally invaded but the tenth anniversary of the Canada-backed ouster of an elected president was almost entirely ignored.

On February 24, 2022, over 100,000 Russian troops invaded Ukraine. Russia’s invasion violated international law and has been brutal (though far less deadly for civilians than the Canadian-enabled onslaught on Gaza).

Eight years earlier, on February 22, 2014, elected president Victor Yanukovich was forced from office in an event that propelled Moscow’s seizure of Crimea and a civil war in the east of Ukraine, which was partly a NATO-Russia proxy war. Russia massively expanded that conflict two years ago.

As Owen Schalk and I detail in the just released Canada’s Long Fight Against Democracy, Ottawa played a significant role in destabilizing Yanukovich and pushing him out. Between 2010 and 2014, Canada waged a campaign to subvert an elected president who passed legislation codifying Ukrainian neutrality in the geopolitical confrontation between NATO and Russia, which increasingly played out in Ukraine.

Soon after he was elected, Ottawa began seeking to undermine Yanukovych’s government. Months after he became president, Prime Minister Harper declared, “there are issues that are of concern to Ukrainian-Canadians and to the government of Canada involving issues of human rights and the rule of law, and I’ll be raising those with President Yanukovych.” Ukrainian Canadian Congress (UCC) head Paul Grod and other representatives of the ultranationalist organization accompanied the prime minister during his October 2010 visit to Ukraine. In announcing their participation, the UCC release claimed, “recent steps taken by Ukraine’s political leadership have seriously undermined the country’s constitution, its democratic institutions, the protection of its historical memory and national identity, sovereignty and territorial integrity.”

During the trip, Stephen Harper met opposition leaders, including failed presidential candidate Yulia Tymoshenko. In Lviv, Harper visited a controversial new nationalist museum and met its director, who had recently been accused of passing classified information to third parties. Talking to journalists about Ukraine’s 1932 famine, Harper encouraged the public to challenge their government, saying the Holodomor should “remind the Ukrainian people of the importance of their freedom and democracy and independence, and of the necessity of always defending those things.”

A year after his trip, Harper threatened Yanukovych over legal proceedings against Tymoshenko, who was found guilty of corruption. In an October 2011 letter, Canada’s PM wrote, “I cannot overstate the potential negative impact of the current judicial proceedings against Yulia Tymoshenko on both Ukraine’s future relations with Canada and others and on Ukraine’s long-term democratic development.” During an April 2012 visit, international trade minister Beverly Oda said Canada was deeply concerned about human rights abuses and, in a highly abnormal diplomatic move, had Ukrainian-Canadian representatives participating in her delegation criticize the government.

Further encouraging opposition to the government, Citizenship, Immigration and Multiculturalism Minister Jason Kenney announced funding for a project “to strengthen freedom of expression, freedom of information and free media in Ukraine.” Launched during a March 2013 visit, the initiative was designed to boost antigovernment forces.

Ottawa helped encourage the November 2013 Maidan protests that would spiral into regime change by breathlessly criticizing the Yanukovych government. It is quite clear that if Yanukovych’s main competitor in the 2010 election, Yulia Tymoshenko, had won and committed five times more rights violations, she would have received far less criticism.

In the two decades before the Maidan uprising, Canada channeled tens, probably hundreds, of millions of dollars to anti-Russian elements of Ukrainian civil society. In 2013, US Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland boasted that the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), USAID, and other US government agencies had plowed $5 billion into bolstering Western-oriented forces in Ukraine since 1991. In a sign of Ottawa’s close ties to opposition activists, throughout the Maidan protests the Canadian embassy’s local spokesperson, Inna Tsarkova, was a prominent member of AutoMaidan, an anti-government group that organized protests in front of Yanukovych’s residence calling for the president to go. As the Embassy’s Program Officer, Tsarkova had previously led sessions about acquiring Canadian funding. Two months into the Maidan protests, Tsarkova’s car was set ablaze. In an interview with a Ukrainian Canadian radio program two days after, the long-time employee at the Canadian embassy said, “if we don’t stand up enough than you know it means the end of Ukraine in terms of democracy and real freedoms. It will be the Soviet empire back in the 1930s when people were just thrown into prison and killed.”

The Maidan protests were sparked by Yanukovych stalling on the European Union–Ukraine Association Agreement. The free trade accord was a step forward in the process of the country potentially joining the EU, which was attractive to many Ukrainians, especially in the west and centre of the country. However, the agreement was more divisive than portrayed by Canadian media and officials. Ukraine, with the second largest landmass in Europe, has significant geographical divisions. For instance, Lviv in the west is closer to Prague, Vienna and Berlin than to the eastern Ukrainian city of Kharkiv, which is near Russia. Additionally, eastern and southern Ukraine was part of the Russian empire for two centuries, while modern Ukraine’s west was once part of the Polish-Lithuanian and Austro-Hungarian empires.

Joining the EU was viewed favourably by many Ukrainians, but the Association Agreement had costs as well. The EU deal would not only undercut trade with Russia; it also depended on Kyiv agreeing to the International Monetary Fund’s demand for “extremely harsh conditions” on eliminating energy subsidies and other government supports.

Amidst the negotiations over the Association Agreement, Moscow offered some $10 billion in benefits to Ukraine and called for tripartite (EU, Russia, and Ukraine) negotiations to work out various trade and economic issues. The EU rejected negotiations. The President of the European Commission, José Manuel Barroso, said explicitly that Kyiv had to choose between the EU Association Agreement and a customs union with Russia. The EU’s take-it-or-leave-it position exacerbated deep geographical and linguistic divisions within Ukraine.

When the anti-Yanukovych uprisings began in late 2013, Canada supported the three-month-long protests. The Canadian government assisted pro-EU, including many far-right, protesters who rallied in central Kyiv’s Maidan square from November 21, 2013, to February 22, 2014. During the uprising Canada’s foreign minister attended an anti-government rally and protesters used the Canadian embassy as a safe haven for numerous days.

A little over a week into the protests, Canada released a statement critical of government repression, which University of Ottawa professor Ivan Katchanovski says was precipitated by far-right infiltrators.  In a November 30, 2013, release titled “Canada Condemns Use of Force Against Protesters in Ukraine,” Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird declared, “Canada strongly condemns the deplorable use of force today by Ukrainian authorities against peaceful protesters.” ix days later, Baird visited Maidan square with Paul Grod, president of the ultranationalist UCC. From the stage, Grod announced Baird’s presence and support for the protesters, which led many to chant “Thank you Canada.” In recognition of Canada’s important role, a Canadian flag flew at the Maidan protest. Baird also called on Ukrainian authorities to respect the protests and bemoaned “the shadow that Russia is casting over this country.”

On December 27, Canada’s chargé d’affaires visited protest leader and journalist Tetyana Chornovol in the hospital after she was violently attacked. Three weeks earlier, Chornovol was widely reported to have participated in seizing Kyiv City Hall. A former member of a far-right party, Chornovol had previously been arrested on numerous occasions and was subsequently charged with murder for throwing a Molotov cocktail at Yanukovych’s Party of Regions headquarters during the Maidan protests.

Prime Minister Harper repeatedly expressed support for the protesters and criticized Yanukovych. On January 27, he slammed the Ukrainian president for “not moving towards a free and democratic Euro-Atlantic future but very much towards an anti-democratic Soviet past.” The next day Ottawa announced travel restrictions and economic sanctions on individuals close to the elected president. At the press conference to announce the measures, Citizenship and Immigration Minister Chris Alexander said, “you [Yanukovych] are not welcome in Canada and we will continue to take strong action until the violence against the people of Ukraine has stopped and democracy has been restored.” Ottawa subsequently slapped travel bans and economic sanctions on dozens of individuals aligned with Yanukovych.

At the height of the protests, activists used the Canadian embassy, which was immediately adjacent to Maidan square, as a safe haven for “at least a week.” The protesters gained access to a mini-van and other Canadian material. In a story written a year after the coup, the Canadian Press quoted officials from allied European nations accusing Canada of being “an active participant in regime change.” In his investigation of Maidan activists’ use of the Canadian embassy in Kyiv, Canadian Press reporter Murray Brewster writes, “Canadians are not very popular in some quarters and occasionally loathed by pro-Russian Ukrainians.”

At least some of those allowed to use the Canadian embassy were from the far right. In “The far right, the Euromaidan, and the Maidan massacre in Ukraine” professor Katchanovski reported, “the leader of the [far right] Svoboda-affiliated C14 admitted that his C14-based Maidan Self-Defense company took refuge in the Canadian embassy in Kyiv on February 18 and stayed there during the Maidan massacre.”

On February 19 and 20, more than 50 were killed in violence that was widely blamed on government security forces. However, the recent trial verdict confirmed work by Katchanovski showing that far-right activists were likely responsible for many of these deaths.

The killings precipitated the collapse of the government. As revealed in a leaked phone call between US Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland and Ambassador to Ukraine, Geoffrey Pyatt, US officials midwifed Yanukovych’s unconstitutional replacement. During the call the US officials decide that Arseniy Yatsenyuk, who advocated joining NATO, should take power.

After Yanukovych was ousted, Ottawa sought to shore up the unconstitutional government. Soon after, Baird “welcomed the appointment of a new government”, saying, “the appointment of a legitimate government is a vital step forward in restoring democracy and normalcy to Ukraine.” But the country’s constitutional provisions dealing with replacing or impeaching a president were flagrantly violated. While Ukraine’s Parliament passed a resolution backing Yanukovych’s ouster, the impeachment procedure enshrined in Article 111 of the constitution requires a special investigatory commission to formulate charges against the president, a ruling by the Constitutional Court and Supreme Court and multiple (decisive) votes in parliament.

Days after the coup, Baird led a delegation of Conservative Party MPs and Ukrainian-Canadian representatives to meet acting president Oleksandr Turchynov and new prime minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk, who was Nuland’s preference. Canada’s foreign minister announced an immediate $200,000 in medical assistance for those injured in the political violence. Subsequently, Ottawa announced $220 million in aid to the interim government. Harper said, “I think we really have to credit the Ukrainian people themselves with resisting the attempt to overturn their democracy and to lead their country back into the past.”

After the coup, Canada’s PM was the first G7 leader to visit the interim government. Alongside Baird and Justice Minister Peter MacKay, Harper told the acting president, “you have provided inspiration and a new chapter in humanity’s ongoing story of the struggle for freedom, democracy and justice.” During his visit to shore up the US and Canadian-installed government, Harper accused Vladimir Putin of seeking to destabilize international security and return the world to the “law of the jungle.” In support of the unconstitutional change of power, Harper visited the authorities in Kyiv twice in under two months.

All this is history. But over the past week the Canadian media has all but ignored the ten-year anniversary of Yanukovych’s ouster. It complicates the narrative that the war is simply explained by Russia’s aggression. Understanding the background to the war is essential to finding an exit to the it.

Yves Engler is the author of 12 books. His latest book is Stand on Guard for Whom?: A People's History of the Canadian Military . Read other articles by Yves.