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Canadian businesses with employees in Ukraine scramble to account for workers amid escalating conflict

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Zenon Poticzny’s office is in Etobicoke, but the real work happens halfway across the world — just outside a small Ukrainian city now overrun by the Russian military.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 02/03/2022 (336 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Zenon Poticzny’s office is in Etobicoke, but the real work happens halfway across the world — just outside a small Ukrainian city now overrun by the Russian military.

Poticzny, the president of Zhoda Petroleum and a Ukrainian national who grew up in Poland before immigrating to Canada, is invested in several oil projects in his country of origin, including an extraction venture in an oil field near Pryluky in north-central Ukraine that produces nearly 200 barrels a day.

Before the collapse of the Soviet Union, that oil patch was one of the largest production sites belonging to the U.S.S.R., estimated to contain about one billion barrels of light, high-quality petroleum across its vast terrain.

Richard Lautens - Toronto Star “When it’s wet and snowy, the oil field becomes very difficult to cross ... I like to think that maybe my field stopped a few tanks,” said Zenon Poticzny, the president of Zhoda Petroleum who is invested in several oil projects in his country of origin.

On Friday, as Poticzny’s workers informed him that Russian tanks were rolling across the field in sovereign Ukrainian territory, he was reminded of that earlier era.

“What we’re seeing is a total disaster. But we’ve seen it before,” Poticzny said.

Poticzny is also the president of the Canada-Ukraine Chamber of Commerce, which represents about 230 companies that do business in both countries.

In the past week, many of those employers have scrambled to account for their workers and protect their offices in a country suddenly thrust into battle.

Inna Kogan, who grew up in Kyiv and immigrated to Canada in 1994, operates a law office in Toronto that helps Ukrainians and Russians immigrate to Canada. She has a satellite office in Kyiv staffed by translators, tutors and interpreters that help applicants fill out paperwork.

In the buildup to the conflict, Kogan said she offered to help bring her eight Ukrainian staff to Canada, but none of them wanted to leave.

“They felt they could be more helpful there. They could bring supplies to the injured and help the elderly. They just wanted to stay for patriotic reasons,” Kogan said.

Kogan’s staff members have abandoned their office in Kyiv and are now hiding in bomb shelters as convoys of Russian soldiers amass around the outskirts of the city, she said.

Most nights, they’re awoken to the sound of bombing and gunfire. Some of them work to distract themselves, so Kogan said she’ll receive emails from them at 4 or 5 a.m. local time when they can’t sleep.

Although Kogan tries to keep in daily contact with her employees, she said she recently lost contact with one of them. That employee is based in Kharkiv, where Russian forces have launched a brutal assault, and Kogan said she hasn’t heard from her since Sunday.

“That’s been extremely worrying. When we last spoke a few days ago, she mentioned plans of possibly relocating elsewhere with her family. So I’m hopeful she’s just on route and that’s why she can’t get in touch,” said Kogan.

In recent weeks, the Canada-Ukraine Chamber of Commerce has sought to help businesses and their employees get out of the country and into neighbouring Poland, Slovakia, Hungary and Romania. Sviatoslav Kavetskyi, the chamber’s executive director, said he worked extensively to relocate businesses with Canadian connections in advance of the Russian invasion.

Most Canadian businesses with Ukrainian offices are helmed by Ukrainians themselves, Kavetskyi said.

For many of them, the sight of their home country getting razed by Russian forces has been nothing short of horrifying.

“It’s absolutely devastating. I’ve been crying non-stop for the past four days, taking breaks to do something useful and trying to distract myself with work,” said Kogan.

Poticzny, trying to stay optimistic, hopes his extraction project near Pryluky helped slow Russian tanks.

“When it’s wet and snowy, the oil field becomes very difficult to cross. We’ve actually been meaning to do repairs on it for ages, but never got the chance,” he said.

“I like to think that maybe my field stopped a few tanks.”

Jacob Lorinc is a Toronto-based reporter covering business for the Star. Reach him via email: jlorinc@thestar.ca

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