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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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    Soldiers deploying to flood-prone areas as water levels rise in New Brunswick

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  • FREDERICTON — About 120 Canadian soldiers will soon be deployed in western New Brunswick to help residents threatened by rising floodwaters.

    The soldiers from Canadian Forces Base Gagetown in southern New Brunswick have been tasked with helping fill sandbags and assisting with evacuating homes, if necessary.

    Lt.-Col. Sean French, commander of the 2nd Battalion, Royal Canadian Regiment, says the soldiers are also prepared to conduct “wellness checks” in various communities, using heavy vehicles that can move through deep water.

    Water levels in the Saint John River Basin are expected to rise significantly over the next few days, reaching or passing flood stage in several areas.

    With heavy rain expected to continue through the day, particularly in northern New Brunswick, residents of 15 communities have been warned to remain on high alert.

    Greg MacCallum, director of New Brunswick’s Emergency Measures Organization, says the rising waters are sure to lead to road closures in several areas, particularly in the Fredericton area and communities farther south.

     

    The Canadian Press



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    Rain, wind equals no 4-20 blow out for Parliament Hill, but West Coast shines

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  • OTTAWA — It was a blow out, man, the kind that’s a total drag.

    Protesters dotted one half of Parliament Hill’s front lawn on a blustery, rainy Saturday at the climax the first 4-20 “Weed Day” demonstration since Canada legalized recreational marijuana.

    The turnout disappointed organizers who expected thousands more, but a festive atmosphere prevailed as the Peace Tower clock struck 4:20 p.m., sparking simultaneous smart phone photography and the lighting of joints, bongs and pipes.

    “The weather didn’t co-operate. It kind of shut us down,” Shawn Mac, a program director for 4-20 Ottawa, said moments earlier. “Coming and going, we’ve probably seen about 3,000, but right now, probably about a thousand.”

    A bout of blowing rain earlier in the afternoon meant the shutdown of a public address system, and a made for a sparse gathering of perhaps several dozen people, most huddled under plastic ponchos or tarps.

    Sara Bakir, 29, of Ottawa was one of early arrivals, dressed in a dark hoodie under a black umbrella.

    “It’s still nice to be out with a few like-minded people,” she said laughing, and casting her eyes at the empty and soaked brownish yellow lawn. 

    Organizers learned a tough lesson even before the rain started falling — new freedoms bring great bureaucracy.

    Mac said his group is encountering more red tape Saturday than on past April 20 protests.

    Organizers can’t use the steps to the now-closed Centre Block, which means spectators will need a front row position on the lawn to see or hear — something Mac calls a “huge letdown.” 

    “Hearing is already a problem so not being able to see is a crushing blow,” he said.

    Organizers have also been told to limit musical performers to just two, Mac said, adding that isn’t in the rules of how to hold a public event on the Hill. 

    New limits on auto access also meant organizers had to haul equipment and material by hand up to the lawn from Wellington Street, he added.

    “It’s frustrating because legalization was supposed to … make things easier and not more complicated,” he said.

    Lingering post-legalization concerns are sustaining a sense of protest among 4-20 event organizers across the country.

    They include concerns over the government’s decision to tax medicinal marijuana, slow progress on legislation to expedite pardons for people previously convicted of simple pot possession, and the fact that provincial and municipal governments are grappling with retail sales and land-use laws for growing pot.

    The federal government also has yet to legalize edible marijuana products and has six more months to set rules to do so. 

    “Everything about legalization has made things harder, which is the opposite of what is was supposed to be,” said Mac.

    Others were more upbeat and saw Saturday’s event as an inspiration to the world.

    “Again, the world is watching, and I’m very proud of Canada today and Canadians,” said Kelly Coulter, a cannabis policy adviser based in British Columbia.

    She said Canada is helping change global attitudes and policies as the first G7 nation to legalize pot, and she expected people from Germany and Britain to take part in Saturday’s festivities on the Hill.

    It was a far cry from Ottawa’s subdued festivities on the West Coast, as hoards of people crowded Vancouver’s Sunset Beach to mark the city’s 25th annual 4-20 event warmed by rays of glorious spring sunshine amid a low lying marijuana haze.

    A much smaller crowd gathered at the front lawn of British Columbia’s legislature in Victoria, but the mood was equally celebratory and defiant.

    “Today, in many ways, is bittersweet for us,” said long-time marijuana activist Ted Smith, who led the countdown chant to 4:20 p.m. in Victoria. “We’re happy it’s legalized, sure, but there’s a lot of things to protest.”

    Smith, in between puffs from a large joint, said the current marijuana rules are biased against entrepreneurs who want to sell their products in much the same way as craft brewers and winemakers.

    And a downpour didn’t dampen the festivities at Woodbine Park in Toronto’s east end, where revellers trampled through the muddy grass to the steady thrum of house music.

    Cannabis artisans sold their wares at tarp-covered stands, many expressing hope that they could one day emerge from the “grey market” to set up shop at brick-and-mortar storefronts.

    Justin Loizos, owner of the Just Compassion marijuana dispensary in Toronto, said the mood Saturday was more celebratory than in past 4-20 gatherings, which felt more like protests.

    The current regime may not be the “legalization people asked for,” Loizos said, but the cannabis community should take heart in just how far Canada has come.

    “I see a lot of people complaining, whatever — don’t,” he said. “We’re just going to celebrate here and enjoy the day.”

    — with files from Adina Bresge and Dirk Meissner.

    Mike Blanchfield, The Canadian Press




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