Ukraine asks Harper for help on visas, and to arm troops against rebels

KYIV, Ukraine — Ukrainian leaders asked Prime Minister Stephen Harper on Saturday to allow more of their people to come to Canada, and to push the West to arm their military to fight their Russian aggressors.

Harper left Kyiv Saturday promising to make the plight of Ukraine in its fight against Russian-backed rebels a top G7 priority, as he was greeted effusively as a returning friend and supporter by President Petro Poroshenko and Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk.

Both both leaders made separate requests of Harper. Poroshenko made his standing next to the prime minister at a joint press conference after he welcomed Harper and his wife Laureen under sunny skies in Kyiv as explosions continued to rock the eastern city of Donetsk, 600 kilometres to the east.

Poroshenko said he would like to see Canada issue more visas to Ukrainians, including 10-year visas, and to make the application process easier, and perhaps electronic like the U.S. And he said he raised the issue with Harper on Saturday.

“We put the question on the table about the visa dialogue,” Poroshenko said in his native tongue in answer to a question by a local journalist. 

Harper said officials from both countries were discussing the issue.

“When visas are refused by Canadian officials, they’re refused for good reason. We’d certainly be happy to dialogue with the government of Ukraine on what those reasons are.”

The prime minister did not elaborate.

A Canadian source, who insisted on anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the matter publicly, said the Canadian embassy in Kyiv has declined 30 per cent of Ukrainian visa requests.

The source said he was surprised by the rejection of one recent applicant because the decision took only two days, and the candidate had a good middle class job and income. The source suggested Canada has set a high bar for Ukrainian applicants.

Harper’s third visit in a little more than a year to Kyiv came amid a major flare up of violence in Ukraine’s restive east.

That has again raised the issue of whether the West ought to be arming the Ukraine military to help it better defend against Russian-backed rebels.

Harper reiterated his answer from earlier in the week that the decision to arm Ukraine forces would only be taken in conjunction with Western allies. Harper said he expected the issue to be discussed at the G7 leaders summit that opens Sunday in Germany.

Earlier, while Harper was visiting a Kyiv police academy with Yatsenyuk, the Ukrainian prime minister said he appreciates everything Canada is doing for his country, but would like to see Harper push the issue at the G7.

“This is not just for Canada. We ask our partners to make (a) bold, strong decision,” Yatsenyuk said.

“To support Ukraine with defensive — and I want to underline again — with defensive weapons,” he added.

“And we expect the globe to realize Russia poses a threat to everyone in this world. We are defending European borders.”

By the time Harper toured the police academy, 80 explosions had been heard in and around Donetsk’s airport and railway station.

That followed another 100 explosions that rocked the city on Friday, and 500 more in the final hour of Thursday evening.

“This is something we’ve not seen before,” said Michael Bociurkiw, the Canadian-born spokesman of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe.

“I can’t remember in all these months seeing that type of intensity.”

Bociurkiw said the shellings in Donetsk were particularly troubling because heavy artillery had been moved back to the front lines in violation of the shaky ceasefire agreement that was reached in February, and was taking an especially heavy toll on civilians.

“They’ve suffered way too much — well over 6,000 have died, 15,000 have been injured. And the big, big number is well over two million have been displaced,” he said. 

“A year ago there were no displaced people.”

That has created a “knock-on effect” in other parts of the country as people continue to be on the move, he said, and aid agencies run short of supplies.

“At the moment, we don’t see any return of displaced people back to the conflict zone. They’re just too scared to go back.”

Harper also announced that Canada would be sending 10 police officers to Ukraine to help reform the country’s security sector in a partnership with the United States.

Harper announced the $5 million project during a visit in which he watched training exercises by police cadets. He also saw a display of some of the non-lethal military aid that Canada has given to Ukraine, including helmets, flak jackets and medical kits.

 

Mike Blanchfield, The Canadian Press