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Where is Canada's strategy to help Ukraine?

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Since the tumultuous days of the Orange revolution, Ukraine has lost a lot of its newsworthy cachet. Aside from some isolated items about oligarchs or unseemly parliamentary practices (such as locking up the leader of the opposition), not a lot of attention has been paid to Ukraine's evolving "strategic position."

As one former senior political adviser said to me during a recent visit, "Ukraine will be a central, worldwide story in the coming year."

At issue is the imminent choice for Ukraine -- potentially helping to reinvigorate the faltering European Union by joining as an associate member, or as the paradox would have it, aid in the ambitions of President Vladimir Putin of Russia to rebuild a semblance of the old Soviet Empire.

At the moment, Ukraine is an underperforming, well-endowed nation of more than 40 million people, with a rich stock of agricultural products, mineral resources, a well-educated population, industrial know-how and sophisticated and attractive cities (Kyiv in springtime is a gem). It has been held back, however, by a fractured political system and faulty government. Increasingly, it is being seen as a crucial balance wheel between the West and Russia, with internal domestic forces pulling in opposite directions.

In its eastern regions, there is a historic and linguistic tilt to embrace its former ties with Russia. Putin is doing everything to weigh the balance by using cheap gas reserves as a sweetener and, sometimes, as a bludgeon. In western Ukraine, the view is decidedly to cast in with the European Union and use this as a way of opening markets, accessing technology and avoiding the Russian Bear's embrace. This runs anathema to many Ukrainians who recall all too well the murderous regime of Stalin, the history of Holodomor and the persistent stifling control of communism. Membership in the EU brings with it a stronger base for building a more democratic, internationally minded Ukraine in the minds of many Ukrainians.

The national government under President Viktor Yanukovych, located in the central capital of Kyiv, has been balancing between the competing forces, but its room to manoeuvre is coming to an end. Decisions on EU membership must be made within the next four or five months. And Putin is turning up the heat.

There is a growing debate, along with much speculation on what the decision will be. What is clearly lacking at this point is any consensus on what direction to make or action to take. There is an aura of muddling through.

To make it even more complicated -- adding further consequences to the dynamics of division at work in the country -- there is a fundamental competition between the Ukrainian Orthodox Church and its Ukrainian Greek Catholic ally, and the powerful Russian Orthodox Church that has held a dominating position in Ukraine for centuries.

At stake is the allegiance of the Ukrainian faithful, who are among the world's most dedicated church followers, with the obvious subtext that the winner of this religious competition will have a powerful influence on the political decisions and the allegiance of the people. This fact is not lost on either President Putin or the western-oriented Ukrainian advocates.

Nor should the importance of this struggle for the hearts and minds of Ukrainians be lost on the rest of us. Does it really advance progress in building a more collaborative, co-operative, rules-minded, economically open, international system by having President Putin strengthen his hand?

Watching the intransigence of the Russian government's frustrating attempts to find a peaceful solution in Syria or Putin's crackdown on dissenters should awaken us to the reality that he is a reincarnation of the old Soviet mentality and could be even more of a problem if Ukraine was at his side.

On the other hand, Ukraine as a member of the EU would give that organization a needed economic shot in the arm while instilling within the country needed reforms in its governance.

Canada, with its large Ukrainian community of more than 1.3 million, clearly has an important role to play in supporting the unfolding of a scenario that could have such positive outcomes in a world that needs some invigoration. But, so far there doesn't seem to be any strategy in mind.


Lloyd Axworthy is the president and vice-chancellor of the University of Winnipeg. He was in Kyiv and Lviv from April 21-26. He received an honorary doctorate from the National Technical University of Ukraine -- Kyiv Polytechnic Institute.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 30, 2013 A9

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