Taking issue with the OSCE SMM’s report on IDPs in Ukraine

Taking issue with the OSCE SMM’s report on IDPs in Ukraine

Last Friday the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission (SMM) released a report on internal displacement in Ukraine and it seems like they want it to be read by as few people as possible.

The OSCE SMM didn’t just release this report on the last Friday in August – they buried it late in the afternoon on the last Friday in August (17.30 Ukraine time – 10.30 am Eastern in Canada/US). OK?

And looking at when the focus groups and interviews were actually done for the report, it’s not like they didn’t have time to release it when people might actually be paying attention:

“Focus group discussions and individual interviews were conducted between August and November 2015 in 19 regions across Ukraine” [emphasis mine]

Listen, I know there were a lot of focus groups and interviews – 161 groups and 39 individual interviews, to be precise, so more than 1,600 people in total. I’ve been that guy having to organize transcriptions and analysis of piles of focus group and interview findings. It takes time. But you mean to tell me it’s taken no less than nine months to do all this?

If they have, the quality of the report is pretty disappointing. This thing rambles on, with barely a signpost for the reader to know what the most important findings are. We don’t get any stand-alone block quotes from IDPs themselves to help contextualize and understand how they’re coping in new communities. We’re treated to vague discussions of IDP-community relations that could leave a reader thinking they’re far worse than they actually are. We get a conclusion (“Concluding Remarks”) that reads like it was pieced together the morning of (I know, cuz I’ve done it), a flimsy set of remarks that summarizes almost nothing of substance. If I ever handed a draft report like this to one of my old bosses I’d have had it handed back to me pretty quickly.

Read this report, then take a look at the UNHCR’s report from a few months ago about IDPs and host communities in Ukraine, and also one of the IOM’s regular reports every few months. I challenge you to reach a different conclusion than mine: that this report’s a watered-down stream of paragraphs that doesn’t really help us understand IDPs any better.

Should we be surprised? Probably not. According to one former OSCE observer:

“According to established OSCE practice, reports should not provoke major controversies. Instead, they should be politically acceptable to all member states, with the emphasis on ‘balance’ rather than ‘objectivity’. In addition to this approach, I also quickly learned that I was only one of several links in the chain of report preparation. Information provided by OSCE monitoring teams had been often already been ‘sterilized’ by the time it reached me. As a result, the reports posted on the OSCE website were often far removed from that what I personally wished to include, and what should have been included.”

I think we can add this report to that list.

A look at some pre-День незалежності surveys

A look at some pre-День незалежності surveys

Data from two big surveys has come out right before Ukraine’s Independence Day on August 24.

Both surveys only spoke to residents of territories currently controlled by the Ukrainian government (i.e., no one from Crimea or the “DNR/LNR” took part).

I’ve taken a look at both of them and made some notes and some stunningly mediocre Word charts.

The future of Ukraine

When it comes to what they feel about the future of their country, it’s a mixed bag of emotions for Ukrainians.

While almost half (44%) of Ukrainians in the June/July poll said that felt hope when they think about the future of Ukraine, almost as many (38%) said they felt anxiety while almost one in four (23%) said they felt fear for their country’s future.

These emotions have changed over the last ten years. Not surprisingly, anxiety is higher now than it was before 2013 (though it’s flattened out a bit since then) and fear for the future of Ukraine is higher, though this has been relatively stable since 2013.

future UA
Graph: Michael Colborne

The regional breakdowns are pretty interesting and run a little bit counter to what I was expecting:

  • Hope for the future of Ukraine is highest in Donbas (Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts, in government-controlled Ukraine) at 56%, but lowest right next door in eastern oblasts (Dnipro, Zaporizhia and Kharkiv oblasts) at 38%.
    • So the most hopeful Ukrainians are the ones closest to – and living in – a war zone?
  • Optimism about the future of Ukraine is lowest in Donbas (9%) and highest in central Ukraine (26%).
    • People in Donbas, it seems, are hopeful but not too optimistic about the future.
  • Anxiety is highest in eastern oblasts (44%) and Donbas (40%) but lowest in central Ukraine (31%)
  • Fear is also higher in eastern oblasts (30%) and southern Ukraine (25%) but lowest in western Ukraine (19%), central Ukraine (21%) and 22% in Donbas.

The age breakdowns weren’t that noteworthy IMO – have a look for yourself. I’d like to see breakdowns and analysis for other factors, like socio-economic status, rural/urban, level of education, employment status, etc., etc., etc.

The status of Russian in Ukraine?

Support for the Russian language having official status in Ukraine dropped to its lowest level ever in this series of surveys (30%).

RU lang
Graph: Michael Colborne

They didn’t provide any breakdowns for this, but I suspect the regional one would be in part what we’d expect (e.g., higher support in eastern Ukraine/Donbas), as well as with older Ukrainians.

Changing social attitudes (and some that change, then quickly change back)

While Ukrainian attitudes towards introducing the death penalty and isolating people with AIDS (!!) have declined since 1991, the same can’t be said for disapproval of premarital sex, homosexuality and the influence of western culture. While disapproval of premarital sex and the influence of western culture are largely the same as they were in 1991, barely over a quarter (27%) of Ukrainians think homosexuals should be treated equally, compared to 34% at the time of Ukraine’s independence.

social attitudes
Graph: Michael Colborne

There was only one regional breakdown given for these questions: western culture was more likely to be perceived as a negative influence in Donbas (49%), southern Ukraine (43%) and eastern Ukraine (39%) than in central Ukraine (29%) or western Ukraine (14%).

This Stalin guy again

Lastly, some Ukrainians still seem to like this Stalin guy, but the love has dropped off to 1991 levels – less than a third (30%) of Ukrainians think that Stalin was a great leader.

Graph: Michael Colborne

The regional breakdown is what I’d expect based on previous Stalin questions, save for Donbas. Almost half (46%) of people in eastern Ukraine thought Stalin was a great leader, compared to 43% in southern Ukraine, 31% in central Ukraine, 20% in Donbas and 13% in central Ukraine.

Still, I’d want to look deeper into the data, particularly at age, socio-economic status, other attitudes, etc., before painting almost half of eastern Ukraine with a broad fond-of-Stalin brush. It’s obviously beyond the scope of this survey but I’d also like to hear from some of these people themselves about why they think Stalin was a great leader. Soviet nostalgia? The feeling that Ukraine needs a super-strong leader in turbulent times? Propaganda?


In conclusion, Ukraine is a land of contrasts. Thank you.

Seriously though, the overarching conclusion I’d draw is this: whatever direction attitudes in post-Maidan Ukraine are moving, we need to dig deeper into data like this to really understand why. Four or five-way regional breakdowns aren’t going to cut it.

Poll in Donetsk region: what we know, don’t know & should know

Poll in Donetsk region: what we know, don’t know & should know

A few days ago I came across this poll from both the uncontrolled (i.e., “DNR”) and controlled (i.e., Ukrainian-controlled) territory of Donetsk region.  There’s some pretty interesting numbers coming out of it; however, as I’ll prattle on about below, I’m actually more interested in the numbers and breakdowns we’re not (yet) seeing.

Point form background:

  • Ukrainian link here: English link here
  • Conducted for the Donbas Think Tank by IFAK Institut, an international market research firm
  • Surveys done from May 30-June 13, 2016, using face-to-face interviews
  • 605 surveys done in uncontrolled territory (i.e., “DNR”)
  • 805 surveys done in Ukrainian-controlled territory

I won’t harp on the findings too much since they’re pretty clearly laid out in both the Ukrainian and English versions, including with some easy-to-read charts much prettier than any nonsense Microsoft Word bar graphs I could spit out. Still, a few thoughts:

1. The bit most people are picking up on is the fact that only 18% of respondents in the “DNR” identified themselves as “DNR” citizens, compared to a much more common Donbas territorial identity (60% UA-gov’t controlled, 61% “DNR”). This has been pretty extensively discussed so I won’t dive into it here.

2. Some of the emotions people say prevail around them are different between controlled and uncontrolled territories and, well, are pretty worrying.

Screenshot_2016-08-16-17-57-38Anxiety’s common in both controlled territories and the “DNR” and hope, strangely enough, is much more common in the “DNR” than the controlled territories (37% to 12%), as is the feeling of cohesion.

What worries me the most are the figures around disappointment (37% in controlled territories versus 11% in uncontrolled territories) and anger/rage (30% in controlled territories versus 6% in uncontrolled territories). Anger and disappointment is a dangerous combination.

3. Everybody, in controlled or uncontrolled territories, fears resumed/intensified war. But just over a quarter (28%) of people in uncontrolled territories fear a restoration of Ukrainian control over the “DNR” which, given the barrages of Russian propaganda these people have been subject to for two years, actually seems reassuringly low to me.


Findings like these have led the Donbas Think Tank to warn that a prolonged war in the east “has a risk of deepening differences between the inhabitants of the uncontrolled area…and inhabitants of the controlled area.”

They also warn that there’s “a particular risk that the “citizen of DPR” identity might expand and…Ukrainian civic identity might be weakened among the residents of the uncontrolled territory.”

That’s why they’ve made a number of policy and communication-related recommendations, including some around “tactical communication” which I think this data would feed into most:

1. To elaborate and implement communication strategy for the reintegration of Donbas – a policy paper  describing  target groups of  the  Donetsk region residents, a system of narratives and messages, channels and tools of communication with the target audience.

 2: “To elaborate and implement a comprehensive information campaign for the residents of  the  controlled  and  uncontrolled  territories  of  the  Donetsk  region  aiming  at strengthening their Ukrainian civic identity”

The place to start describing these “target groups” and spur on discussion about these “narratives and messages” is right here, with this survey data. But this data, as it’s being publicly presented right now, isn’t giving the rest of us much to go on.

Looking just at the “DNR” data, you’ve got a (presumably?) representative sample of just over 600 residents. This might not be a large enough sample to be crosstabbing and regressing the shit out of, but it’s large enough to do what I’d think are some pretty important breakdowns. Gender. Age. Socio-economic status (assuming of course there was a question in the survey acting as a proxy for SES). Level of education. Whether they’re pensioners or not. Religious affiliation. etc. These are the breakdowns government, the public and civil society in Ukraine need to see to know who’s thinking what in the “DNR” and how to (and not to) communicate with them. Painting everyone in the “DNR” with an overly broad brush isn’t going to do them or the rest of Ukraine any favours.

That being said, a lot of this has definitely already gone on behind the scenes. I’ve been one of those market research noobs behind those scenes running crosstabs into the wee hours of the morning until I feel like my soul has escaped my body. What’s more, the data that’s been presented publicly doesn’t tell us anything about weighting, representativeness of the sample, etc., or any more methodological details. Some of this would help, even if it’s only a few losers like me who look at it.

In short, there’s some pretty helpful information buried in this survey data. Let’s use it.

Ongoing war in Ukraine turns 1.7 million people into refugees

Ongoing war in Ukraine turns 1.7 million people into refugees

(my piece last month for CBC News)

Most 16-year-olds spend their summers working behind a counter, hanging out with their friends and maybe sneaking out to a party or two. Maria Semenenko got to spend hers fleeing her hometown.

Semenenko, now 18, is from Donetsk, the still-burning hot spot of the war between Ukraine and Russian-backed rebels. The conflict has claimed nearly 9,400 lives since 2014, according to the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.

Despite the fact that there’s a nominal ceasefire in place, military and civilian casualties continue to mount in eastern Ukraine, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights says.

International monitors such as the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe continue to observe one ceasefire violation after another, and continue to be denied access by Russian-backed rebels to a number of parts of the territory they control, including the border with Russia.

The war, along with Russia’s annexation of Crimea, has forced more than 1.7 million people like Semenenko from their homes to other parts of Ukraine.

Many have gone to fairly close cities in the east like Kharkiv and Zaporizhia. Smaller numbers have gone to cities like Lviv in western Ukraine, more than 1,100 kilometres away, while others have gone to smaller cities and towns all over the country where they have friends and family.

But many, like Semenenko and her family, left everything behind and settled in Kyiv, Ukraine’s capital and largest city of almost three million.

It wasn’t easy at first.

“I like singing,” she says at Kyiv’s World Refugee Day celebration on June 20. She used to sing and play a bit of guitar with her friends back home in Donetsk.

“But when I got to Kyiv, I didn’t know what to do,” she says. “I didn’t know a lot of people here.”

But last winter Semenenko found out about a talent show an NGO was putting on for young internally displaced persons (IDPs) like her. She applied, auditioned and was accepted.

It gave her a chance to not only belt out a few tunes, but also to make friends in a crowded new city.

“I’ve had some good luck,” she says. But she knows not everyone is as lucky.

Few jobs for refugees

Semenenko’s parents have found work in Ukraine’s competitive capital city. But according to a recent survey by the International Organization for Migration (IOM) mission in Ukraine, fewer than half of such families in Ukraine even have regular income from employment.

Even those who do can’t manage to pull in very much. According to the IOM’s survey, 59 per cent of internal refugees made less than $68 Cdn per family member per month.

“The general level of well-being of most IDPs is quite low,” says Manfred Profazi, IOM Ukraine’s chief of mission.

Some assistance is available from the Ukrainian government: $20 Cdn a month if a refugee is able to work and $46 Cdn if not. But refugee activists worry that new Ukrainian government rules and “monitoring commissions” will take these benefits away from the most vulnerable refugees like the elderly and disabled.

“For people who live in poverty, on the very brink of survival, these small subsidies mean a lot,” activist Andriy Timoshenko told the Kyiv Post last week.

“They don’t have anywhere to live or anything to live on.”

From Syria to Ukraine

Assad Hawlkat might have a place to live, but it’s not where he wants to be.

A Kurd from Kobani in northern Syria, Hawlkat left home several years ago to study at a university in Luhansk in eastern Ukraine. He earned an undergraduate degree, got married and was working towards a graduate degree when Russian-backed rebels seized Luhansk.

“In 2015 they started saying they might have to send all the international students out because of the situation there,” he says. He ended up going back home to Kobani, itself recently liberated after a long siege by ISIS.

Hawlkat, a fervent painter, didn’t last long back home. Extremists threatened him after a small exhibition of his paintings earned their ire and soon after he came back to Ukraine to pursue his graduate studies in Kyiv.

Nothing to go back to

After his parents told him there was nothing to come back to in Kobani, Hawlkat applied for refugee status in Ukraine. He is still waiting.

But he can’t go back to Luhansk, where he’d rather be. His wife is there but can’t leave because she’s looking after her ill mother and grandmother. As a refugee claimant, he isn’t allowed to get through the front lines to visit.

“I have all the photos to prove my story but they say no,” he says, frustrated.

But for Hawlkat, art is his outlet. He displayed some of his paintings at the World Refugee Day celebration.

His paintings are visual odes to what he’s lost and what he hopes to get back. Some of his pieces are based on photographs, including of his own war-torn hometown in Syria.

Others are abstract pieces, from multicoloured swirls of oil to flowery yet fiery electrocardiograms that express emotions he can’t put into words.

“As an artist, I’m burning from the inside for my paintings,” he says. “I can’t live without them.”

As Maria Semenenko shelters herself from the afternoon sun, she is asked what she would say to Canadians about herself and her life.

She pauses, seeking the right words in English.

“Value peace, all that you have,” she says. “Because just one time, you can lose it all.”

Let’s get to know Ukraine’s IDPs

Let’s get to know Ukraine’s IDPs

The UN’s World Refugee Day is June 20. It’s a day to draw public attention to the tens of millions of refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs) around the world who’ve had to flee their homes because of war, conflict or persecution.

Sadly, there’s no shortage of IDPs in Ukraine. There are 1.7 million IDPs across the country who have been forced to flee Donbas and Crimea over the past two years, and it doesn’t look like they’re going to be able to return home anytime soon.

Yesterday the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology (KIIS) and the UNHCR released results from a timely poll of Ukrainians’ attitudes towards internally displaced persons (IDPs) in Ukraine.

It was really two surveys – one a representative in-person survey of Ukrainians as part of KIIS’s regular omnibus (data from which I’ve bored people with before), and the other a telephone survey just of Ukrainians in cities with large populations (CLP in the report and the rest of this piece) of IDPs.

It’s a really effective way of parsing out the differences in attitudes between people who actually have met and know IDPs and those who haven’t. And they’re certainly different.

Tonight’s episode of ‘Talking to IDPs’

Turns out most Ukrainians haven’t actually had that much contact with IDPs in their communities. Only 17% of Ukrainians country-wide have had a conversation with an IDP, and 39% haven’t ever spoken with an IDP nor know of any living in their vicinity. Even in CLPs less than half (47%) have actually spoken to an IDP.

But as you can see in the crappy screenshot I’ve taken of Figure 1.2 of the report, people in CLPs are more likely to know about IDPs where they live, to have spoken to some, to have some as neighbours/friends or relatives and/or to live with some. Not surprising.

Figure 1.2

These numbers differ across Ukraine and again, not surprisingly, they mirror the distribution of IDPs across the country. Look at the bottom graph – in western Ukraine just under half (49%) of respondents have never spoken with an IDP nor know of any living in their vicinity, compared to 41% in central Ukraine, 34% in southern Ukraine and 26% in eastern Ukraine.

How do Ukrainians feel about IDPs?

The vast majority of Ukrainians have positive or neutral attitudes towards IDPs, particularly those who actually live in cities with large IDP populations.

Across the entire country, 43% of Ukrainians said they had positive attitudes IDPs, while 58% did in CLPs. Not many Ukrainians hold negative views of IDPs – only 6% across all Ukraine and a minuscule 2% in CLPs.

Ukrainians’ opinions of IDPs haven’t changed much in the past two years. Five percent of people across Ukraine said their attitudes towards IDPs had improved – compared to 10 percent in CLPs – and 7 percent said their attitudes had worsened, compared to only 3% in CLPs.

While there are a few regional differences in attitudes towards IDPs, these attitudes look to be more associated with (lack of) familiarity with IDPs than anything else.

Look at Figure 3.4, particularly the top green bar(s) for western Ukraine and western Ukrainian CLPs. In western Ukraine negative stereotypes of IDPs are more common – but remember that western Ukrainians had less contact and less familiarity with IDPs than people in any other part of Ukraine.

Figure 3.4

What’s more, those negative stereotypes are much less common in western Ukrainian cities with large IDP populations, much like everywhere else in the country. While almost a quarter of western Ukrainians think that IDPs “support separatism,” less than one in ten western Ukrainians in CLPs do. This tells me that the best way for a Ukrainian to understand ‘what IDPs think’ is to meet and chat with some – just like, say, in Canada or the US, the best way to understand what Syrian refugees are like is to…you know, meet some.

For reference, here’s Figure 3.3 of the “positive” characteristics, where you can see a similar trend the other way, particularly when it comes to the idea that IDPs are “very vulnerable and need help.”

Figure 3.3

What’s more, people who have more contact with IDPs and/or know some tend to be more likely to be willing to hire them or to rent them a place to live.

Table 10

Familiarity, it seems, doesn’t have to breed contempt.

With my stats hat on, I have to acknowledge that there could be other reasons for all this. Are more positive/less negative views of IDPs more related to factors like income/socio-economic status and level of education that are higher in big cities that happen to have large IDP populations? Do people in population centres with IDPs tend to be more liberal in their political views, which itself would explain their positive attitudes towards IDPs? All possible, yes, but I doubt it. If I had the data set I could run this and answer that question. So, you know, UNHCR/KIIS, hintity hint hint.

What matters? Media coverage matters

The takeaway from this is that the more Ukrainians encounter, meet and get to know IDPs, the more likely they seem to be to have positive attitudes towards them. But you can’t get every Ukrainian in every village, town and city to get to know an IDP, particularly if there isn’t one for miles around.

That’s why media coverage of IDPs in Ukraine really matters. Almost two-thirds (65%) of respondents in this poll said they based their opinions of IDPs on mass media; media coverage is even important for shaping the opinions of people who’ve met IDPs (53%) and those who have IDPs as friends or neighbours (38%).

What’s the best substitute for actually getting to know someone who’s had to flee their home? Watching, reading or hearing a good, accurate story about one.

Stéphane Dion and his defenders

Stéphane Dion and his defenders

Stéphane Dion hasn’t been making too many friends lately.

In April, Canada’s foreign minister gave export permits for most of a $15-billion deal to ship combat vehicles to the human rights hotbed of Saudi Arabia, despite previously blaming the former Conservative government for tying his hands with the deal.

A few weeks ago he rejected a cross-party effort to get Canada to adopt an American-style Magnitsky Act to punish Russian human rights violators. Even though it was in his own party’s election platform last year, Dion said it was unnecessary and that it’d only further antagonize Russia, with whom the new government’s keen on a “reset.” His stance has earned him a lot of scorn from both home and abroad.

But Dion, a man best known in Canada for once leading his party to its worst defeat since 1867, actually has a few defenders, and they both popped their heads up last week.

One of them is Chris Westdal, a “a former Canadian ambassador to Russia and current chair of the board of Silver Bear Resources, a TSE-listed company building a silver mine in Yakutia, Russia” who took to the Globe and Mail’s opinion pages to say that “Magnitsky-style sanctions make no sense for Canada.”

Another one is Zach Paikin, son of a well-known Canadian journalist, who penned a piece for the Hill Times arguing that Canada doesn’t “need a Magnitsky Act” but a “rapprochement with Russia.”

So what did I think?

Our home and native land (или наш дом и родина?)

First, both of these guys make what I feel are some subtle little appeals to Canadian nationalism in their pieces that might be lost on the non-Canadian reader.

Canadian nationalism, in its most immature and narrow form, is an insecurity-driven quest to try to prove we’re different from Americans and that, therefore, any attempt to differentiate ourselves from Americans is a good thing.

Westdal doesn’t use this card much, though he does point out that “Canada is not the United States,” a truism every Canadian hears (or says) more than once in their life.

But it’s in response to Michael McFaul’s criticisms of Dion where Westdal throws it out on the table, saying that a Magnitsky act would be “a thoroughly U.S., one-size (ours)-fits-all perspective to a Canadian foreign policy issue.”

It’s a strange point – what’s so uniquely American about targeting Russian human right abusers? But to someone inclined to follow the we-gotta-be-different-from-the-Americans-in-every-way-eh train, this makes some sense. We need to do things our way, right? Even without any knowledge of whatever’s in question, saying “but this is how the Americans do it!” can get a reaction out of at least a few Canadians.

On the other hand, Paikin goes all-out face-painty Team Canada on us:

“There are two paths that Canadian grand strategy can walk over the decades to come: either we remain heavily dependent on the United States, or we gradually develop a sense of strategic promiscuity.”

Aside from the weird rhetorical flourishes of talking about our “grand strategy,” he has to know as well as I do that Canada will always remain “heavily dependent on the United States.” More than two-thirds of our exports go south of the border. It’s the largest bilateral trading relationship in the world, with upwards of $600 billion in trade across the border every year. Yeah, talk about “strategic promiscuity” (uh, OK?) all you want, but you can’t avoid the elephant that basically follows you around while you’re trying to score with the Russians.

But the way he brings multiculturalism into the argument really throws me.

For the uninitiated, “multiculturalism” is a word that carries a unique weight in Canada. Think of it less like the American melting pot and more like a patchwork quilt. Difference is to be celebrated, not discouraged. I’d say it’s something many of us cling to and believe in, even if we’re not always aware of it.

Apparently our multiculturalism can lead us to international glory, says Paikin:

“Multiculturalism is in our national essence. Within our borders, we bring people of many backgrounds together. If we decide that we wish to serve as a bridge between major global powers— that is, if we bring our multiculturalism into the international sphere—then we will develop the incentive to obtain the capabilities necessary to act in that capacity. If we work toward being significantly more populous and more fluently multilingual (among other assets), then we can be a first-tier builder of world order this century.”


Our country’s ability to be particularly good at bringing people of different backgrounds and cultures together (incidentally, a point I agree with) means we can be “a bridge between major global powers” like the US and Russia? This is going to help us “increase our global influence and contribute to international peace?”

Come on, dude. Really?

You really think guys like Putin and Sergei Lavrov are going to care what we have to say because we use our active listening skills, non-judgmental demeanours and unique Canadian-ness?

dion and lavrov
“Je me fier à lui. Il m’a dit qu’il va jouer selon les règles”

Using Canadian multiculturalism to justify closer relations with Russia is one of the strangest arguments I’ve heard in a long time.

Whose economic interest exactly?

If it’s in Canada’s economic interest to reset relations with Russia and reject a Magnitsky act, these guys can’t really explain why.

“We seek re-engagement with Russia…to try to do business – to invest, to trade, to make jobs,” Westdal tells us, before concluding that a Magnitsky act would hurt our economic interests in Russia. But as far as economic interests go, that’s it. Yes, I know you’ve got a word count in an op-ed to cope with, but still.

But at least Westdal (and the Globe and Mail) are upfront with his own economic interest in Russia. Remember, he’s the “current chair of the board of Silver Bear Resources, a TSE-listed company building a silver mine in Yakutia, Russia.” He’s also involved with Canada Eurasia Russia Business Association (CERBA), whose economic interests in Russia should be obvious. By the end of the article we still know more about Westdal’s personal economic interest in Russia than Canada’s.

That’s probably with good reason. Before sanctions resulting from Putin’s annexation of Crimea and incursion into eastern Ukraine, Canadian foreign investment in Russia was around C$5 billion, according to some guy from CERBA in 2014. That might sound impressive, but keep in mind Canadian firms had twice as much money invested in Peru last year. Yes, Peru, with about one-fifth the population of Russia.

But “re-engagement” with Russia might be in someone’s interests – Canadian transportation giant Bombardier.

Bombardier’s got a joint venture in Russia, a 50 percent stake in a Russian signaling equipment producer and, to top it off, a mention in the Panama Papers linking them to corruption in Russian Railways – whose onetime president Vladimir Yakunin once described Bombardier’s recently-resigned CEO, Pierre Beaudoin, as “family.”

Bombardier is one of the few big Canadian companies with an economic interest in Russia – and they’ve got the government’s ear:

“Records from the The Office of the Commissioner of Lobbying, show that Bombardier CEO, Pierre Beaudoin has met with senior government staff, including the PMO and Minister Dion, over 40 times since the October election – mostly since January.”

If there’s an overarching economic interest in rejecting Magnitsky and reengaging Russia, no one’s coming close to making the case.

What war? And what Ukraine?

This is where both these guys really lost me.

Remember, Canada has sanctions against Russia because of, uh, “everything” that’s gone on here in Ukraine – you know, that whole annexing-Crimea-and-sending-troops-into-eastern-Ukraine-but-pretending-we-didn’t thing. We don’t have sanctions against Russia because they, like, beat us at hockey or something. Putin did something that continues to deserve international condemnation, including from us.

But Westdal bothers mentioning Ukraine only once (my bold):

We seek re-engagement with Russia not to be nice, but to serve major, compelling Canadian national security interests in Eurasia, the Middle East and far beyond. We do so to try to turn the rising tide of a new Cold War, to try to stop the ruinous tug of war for Ukraine.”

At least he mentions Ukraine, but “tug of war?” We’re not having gym class outside today, man.

I got to randomly stumble upon two soldiers’ funerals week on the Maidan over the past few weeks here. Four coffins in total with, thankfully, only one of them open casket. Seven Ukrainian soldiers were killed on Tuesday. Five more were killed today. We all know it’s Russian guns and bullets killing these men, delivered across an international border they don’t want OSCE monitors going near. If it’s a “tug of war,” only one side has to let go to end it.

To his credit, Westdal at least uses the words “Ukraine” and “war,” even if in one of them was in a bad pun. Paikin doesn’t even bother mentioning Ukraine or even use the word “war,” outside of the Sputnikesque “avoiding post-Cold War triumphalism and toning down the incessant demonization of Vladimir Putin” – language I’ve personally heard from people I don’t think Paikin would want to be associated with.

A short conclusion, unaided by any Jump to Conclusions mat

I don’t think these arguments are about to persuade many people – but if some of them are in Stéphane Dion’s circle (and Zach Paikin may well be someday, given that he tried to become Liberal party policy chief when he was just twenty years old), Vladimir Putin might just put us back on his friends list.

What Ukrainians think: are there Russian troops in Ukraine?

There are Russian troops in Ukraine.

Here. Here. Here. And here.

This shouldn’t be a remotely controversial statement anymore.

But just over one in ten Ukrainians say they don’t think there are. One in five aren’t sure.

I’ve been digging again into data from the most recent Omnibus Survey run by Kiev International Institute of Sociology, where they asked (KIIS’s translation from the Ukrainian and Russian versions of the questionnaire):

What do you think, are there Russian troops in Ukraine now?”

Almost two-thirds (65%) of Ukrainians said yes – they think there are Russian troops in Ukraine. But just over one in ten (13%) said there weren’t, and 22% (i.e., one in five) said they weren’t sure.

The first go-to breakdown for pretty much any survey in Ukraine – the regional breakdown – doesn’t seem that surprising on its face, as 35% of people in eastern Ukraine said there weren’t any Russian troops in Ukraine.

Dig a bit further though and there’s a lot more to this 35% figure than the oversimplified east-versus-west/’pro-Russia/pro-western’ business.

The curious case of what people in the “DNR” think

In Donetsk oblast, KIIS’ interviewers managed to talk to people in both the government-controlled part of the oblast and the “DNR.”

When it comes to the ‘are there Russian troops?’ question, the numbers are pretty striking.

What do you think, are there Russian troops in Ukraine now? Donetsk oblast, UA-controlled “DNR”
Yes 42% 7%
No 19% 78%
Difficult to say 39% 15%

Yes, people in the “DNR” – you know, that the part of Ukraine occupied by Russian-backed forces and with clear evidence of a Russian military presence – seem to be quite insistent that there aren’t any Russian troops in Ukraine.

Of course, if you’re asked a series of questions by a stranger in a militarily-occupied internationally-unrecognized fiefdom rife with human rights abuses, you might think it’s best to toe the line and say what the men with the guns in charge would want you to say, even if you know damn well what the right answer is.

What about the one in five who aren’t sure?

Keep in mind the one-in-five figure is for the overall population of Ukraine (excluding Crimea). In eastern Ukraine, 36% of people say they aren’t sure whether there are Russian troops in Ukraine, about the same as those who insist there aren’t any. In the part of Donetsk oblast still controlled by the Ukrainian government, 39% people aren’t sure.

I really doubt most of these people are that unsure.

First, I suspect there’s a hell of a lot of social desirability bias going on here – that is, people believing there’s Russian troops in Ukraine but being too scared to say so or admit it. I honestly can’t say I blame them.

Secondly, some of these people are probably experiencing some wicked cognitive dissonance. Some of these people have to know there’s Russian troops in Ukraine, but they can’t or won’t reconcile that with their own ‘pro-Russian’ views or what they’re being fed from Russian propaganda. In that case, it’s easier to cop out with a ‘gee, I don’t know.’

But others, I think, are diving down an epistemological rabbit hole, where they say they don’t know because they can never really ‘know’ for sure whether there are Russian troops in Ukraine. Ironically, this is exactly what I heard from someone back in Canada when I showed them this question from the survey. They innocently asked something like “well, how can people know that for sure?”

This kind of thinking is a total cop out. I mean, I don’t know ‘for sure’ that the earth is round because I’ve never seen it from space. Still, I’m reasonably certain it is round, and challenging me with a conspiracist “how do you know for sure?” line isn’t going to make me change that. I say that I know this because there’s a lot of logically consistent evidence pointing to it, whether I’ve personally seen it or not, and the argument against it has even less evidence and logical consistency behind it.

This kind of “you can’t know for sure” denialism couched as skepticism (“Question More,” anybody?) is just another way to deny the existence of any sort of truth(s) and to get away with saying things that are plainly, obviously and demonstrably wrong. To paraphrase George Bernard Shaw, you don’t need to eat a whole egg to know it’s rotten.