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Ukraine’s top cop walks thin blue line between Russian meddling, free election

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OTTAWA — Two weeks after Serhii Kniaziev’s military career ended, the Iron Curtain fell, the Soviet Union crumbled and the young ex-soldier returned to Ukraine and quickly found his calling — the thin blue line of policing.

In the latter days of his military service, he was posted to the volatile Caucasus region, where ethnic conflict and strife rose amid the Soviet Union’s disintegration.

“I came back to an independent Ukraine,” Kniaziev said through a translator on a recent visit to Ottawa. “That was also the reason I decided to become a policeman because I was exposed during my military service to blood and to fighting that took place in that time, at that area.”

A generation later, Kniaziev is the chief of the National Police of Ukraine at a pivotal moment in his country’s history. He is now responsible for protecting the integrity of Ukraine’s March 31 presidential election.

The election faces daily threats from a familiar source: a determined Russia bent on using cyberspace to sow disinformation to undermine the democratic ambitions of a country it still considers part of its orbit.

“I feel a great sense of responsibility, ensuring the proper elections,” said Kniaziev, whose furrowed brow and strapping, thick frame suggests the presence of invisible anvils on each of his broad shoulders.

“Unfortunately we are in a position that Russia is our enemy now, and Russia has never been weak. We have to be very honest and very realistic in assessing the capabilities of Russia.”

Kniaziev spent time with RCMP counterparts, Toronto police and other leading federal government officials in Canada’s diplomatic and security apparatus in Ottawa earlier this winter. Canada has been helping Ukraine build its national police force following the tumultuous events of early 2014 that saw the ouster of the country’s Kremlin-backed president after pro-democracy Maidan protests in Kyiv, and Moscow’s subsequent invasion and annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula.

The Police Training Assistance Project, run by Global Affairs Canada, is part of the government’s broader assistance to Ukraine, which includes a Canadian Armed Forces mission of 200 trainers that was extended last week, the deployment of hundreds of election observers for the upcoming ballot and the imposition of sanctions on more than 100 Russians.

Kniaziev and his Canadian counterparts exchanged information and best practices on how to cope with the inevitable threat of foreign interference in elections.

Canada has struck a special committee, a “critical election protocol,” composed of five senior public servants who will decide whether a malign act of interference in this October’s federal election warrants going public in the middle of the campaign.

Kniaziev and his Ukrainian colleagues describe their country as a petri dish for Russian cyberattacks — known in 21st Century military doctrine as “hybrid war” — and say the countries that partner with it, such as a Canada, have a lot to learn from them as well.

Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland echoed that sentiment recently, calling Ukraine a “laboratory” for Russian disinformation campaigns in cyberspace that Canada has learned from.

Russia has also undertaken traditional military manoeuvres against Ukraine by seizing Crimea and supporting separatist rebels in its eastern Donbass region, but cyberspace has become the main battlefield.

“In 2014, these were military activities — war fighting. But in 2015, ’16, ’17, ’18 they’ve changed their ways and we are in the midst of hybrid war,” said Kniaziev.

That has come to encompass a wide spectrum of malign activity, from trying to directly hack the online infrastructure of elections, to influencing public opinion through misinformation and generally sowing unrest.

“Whenever Russia doesn’t feel like it wants to be involved in direct, naked aggression they are involved in all of these subversive hybrid activities,” said Kniaziev.

Ukraine’s ambassador to Canada, Andriy Shevchenko, said as the election nears, Russia has launched daily cyberattacks on Ukraine’s digital election infrastructure, its critical infrastructure and media.

Ukrainian police and the Mounties are also working together on a daily basis. “It’s a very practical co-operation,” he said. “We can witness true camaraderie between Canadians and Ukrainians.”

The constant state of vigilance has also created a heightened state of national stress, something Kniaziev only realized after spending time on the beat with rank and file Toronto police officers during his recent trip.

As he headed back to Ukraine, he came to recognize the need to incorporate mental health professionals into the daily patrols of his country’s police officers as part of their regular interactions with Ukrainian citizens.

“We have quite a number of people who have so-called Vietnam syndrome, meaning some mental issues,” he said.

“The society in general does not understand who these people are, where they are coming from. The approach we saw in Toronto really impressed us.”

Kniaziev blames the ongoing strife with Russia for affecting his country’s national psyche.

“It’s been six years of ongoing war with our neighbour, so Ukrainian society lives in a totally different reality, if we were to compare with the Canadian society.”

Mike Blanchfield, The Canadian Press


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Five Things to watch for as PM meets Trump, congressional leaders in Washington

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WASHINGTON — Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is spending the day in Washington for a meeting with President Donald Trump at the White House and face time with congressional leaders from the Republicans and Democrats on Capitol Hill. Here are five things to watch for:

1. Working towards certainty on continental trade uncertainty

Trump foisted an acrimonious renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement on Canada and Mexico, and after more than year of hard-fought bargaining, everyone survived. The leaders of the three countries signed the deal late last year, but final legal ratification remains a significant hurdle — especially in the U.S. Trump has insulted House Leader Nancy Pelosi, who essentially holds the cards on ratification. But Trump’s trade czar Robert Lighthizer has been repeatedly complimentary of her efforts to find solutions. Trudeau will likely seek to persuade Pelosi that if the deal is good enough for Liberals in Canada, perhaps the Democrats in the U.S. can swallow it too. We likely won’t know for weeks how successful Trudeau will be. But one test will be whether the matter moves through Congress before the end of July, when it adjourns for the summer.

2. Helping two Canadians in big trouble in China

Two Canadian men, Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, have been languishing behind bars in China for more than six months. Their arrest is widely viewed as retaliation for Canada’s arrest of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou in Vancouver on an American extradition warrant. Chinese leaders have snubbed Trudeau and his cabinet ministers, but Trump has been playing hardball with the People’s Republic in an escalating trade war that is rocking the global economy. During a visit to Ottawa last month, U.S. Vice-President Mike Pence said Trump will push Chinese President Xi Jinping for their release at the G20 leaders’ summit in Japan next week. Will Trump tip his hand about doing Trudeau a favour?

3. Winning in the eyes of Canadians

Managing relations with the United States, Canada’s largest trading partner, neighbour, close friend and ally is arguably one of the most important jobs of a prime minister. Trudeau has had a rough time with Trump, to put it mildly. Trump insulted him over Twitter after leaving the G7 in Quebec last year, and he imposed punishing steel and aluminum tariffs on Canadian imports as a bargaining chip in the NAFTA talks. All of that would seem to be history. The subtexts, the body language the words, each interaction between the two men will be under scrutiny when they shake hands and trade remarks in the Oval Office. What matters for Trudeau — and Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer — is how Canadians interpret that when they go to the polls in October.

4. Huawei, or not Huawei

The Trump administration is clear: the Chinese telecom giant is a national security threat and won’t be supplying any of the equipment for America’s next generation 5G network. The Trump administration doesn’t want Canada or its allies using Huawei either. The Trudeau government is taking its time deciding. Trudeau and Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale have repeatedly said they will make an evidence-based decision on the advice of their national security experts. That likely won’t come before the October election, however. Trump will push the issue with Trudeau when they talk in private. In public, expect nothing to change.

5. That’s the way the basketball bounces

In addition to trying to work to salvage the North American economy, protect jobs and bring certainty back to big business planning, Trudeau will have the opportunity to gloat with Pelosi for winning his bet on the NBA Finals that saw the Toronto Raptors defeat her home-state Golden State Warriors. Will Trudeau pop the cork on the nice bottle of California wine he is likely to receive? More importantly, perhaps, will Trump give any hint that he plans to invite the champions to the White House, in keeping with what is now an often-controversial tradition?

Mike Blanchfield, The Canadian Press

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Trade, China sure to surface as Trudeau meets Trump, congressional leaders

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WASHINGTON — Justin Trudeau is headed back to the White House today in what could prove to be a pivotal visit to the U.S. capital not only for North American trade and Canada’s strained relationship with China, but for the campaign-bound prime minister himself.

An earnest end to the tensions between Trudeau and President Donald Trump, which erupted into full view following last year’s G7 summit in Quebec, could prove useful to his governing Liberals when Canadians head to the polls this fall.

The Oval Office meeting, Trudeau’s third since Trump was elected in 2016, is aimed primarily at pushing the new North American trade deal over the finish line in both countries.

But Trudeau will also be looking to the U.S. president to speak out against the detention of Canadians Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, who have been languishing behind bars in China since shortly after Canada arrested high-tech executive Meng Wanzhou late last year at the behest of U.S. authorities. 

Canada has been caught in the crossfire after detaining Meng last December in Vancouver, where she awaits extradition south of the border to face allegations of fraud in violating Iran sanctions.

Trudeau is hoping Trump will go to bat for Kovrig and Spavor when he meets China’s President Xi Jinping at next week’s G20 leaders’ summit in Japan.

Vice-President Mike Pence has promised Trump would do just that, but Trudeau will find out today whether the mercurial president plans to follow through.

And then there’s the new NAFTA.

Trump needs to persuade his Democratic opponents in the House of Representatives — in particular Speaker Nancy Pelosi, with whom Trudeau is scheduled to meet later in the day — to allow the actual start of the ratification of the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA). Lawmakers in Mexico voted Wednesday in a landslide to ratify the deal.

U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer called that “a crucial step forward” towards finalizing the deal.

“The USMCA is the strongest and most advanced trade agreement ever negotiated. It is good for the United States, Mexico, and Canada in a way that truly benefits our workers, farmers, and businesses,” he said in a statement.

Pelosi and her fellow Democrats want stronger enforcement mechanisms for the deal’s new labour and environmental provisions — and Trudeau’s visit might be just the thing needed to pry loose her support.

Canada, meanwhile, has been building strong support for the new NAFTA and open borders within the U.S. and it has many American business allies who remain active.

Lighthizer told the powerful House ways and means committee Wednesday that he’s willing to co-operate with Democrats to move forward on the new trade bill.

“Getting this done sooner rather than later is in everybody’s interest,” he said. “It saves jobs, it helps the economy, it gets certainty in place.”

Mike Blanchfield, The Canadian Press

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