Canada’s new ambassador to Ukraine had an eerie sense of déjà vu when she reached Kyiv last month.
Natalka Cmoc saw so many locals with missing limbs that it reminded her of working in Ukraine in the 1990s, when the newly independent country had thousands of soldiers returning from the Soviet Union’s war in Afghanistan.
“Ukraine is really close to my heart, and I want Ukraine to succeed,” Cmoc said in an interview from the Canadian Embassy in Kyiv on Friday.
She arrived in Ukraine’s capital on Aug. 15, starting a one-year term in a country she has lived in multiple times since its 1991 independence and that was invaded by Russia 18 months earlier.
In just two weeks, she’s already familiar with the rhythm of air-raid sirens, warning in a videoconference call that she might need to suddenly hunker down. “The last few nights, it’s been more like 4 or 5 in the morning.”
Cmoc’s assignment is two-pronged, with a short-term focus on supporting Ukraine’s immediate defence and security needs while countering all forms of Russian aggression. That often takes the form of meeting with her peers from G7 countries in Kyiv.
The longer-term focus is getting Ukraine to a place where it can join the European Union and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization military alliance, by supporting reforms and reconstruction, as well as humanitarian aid.
Cmoc said her role is to co-ordinate those efforts on various fronts and ensure clarity between Ottawa and Kyiv.
Western allies say Ukraine is making progress in its counteroffensive, which Cmoc said is replicating a NATO military tactic to limit the loss of life. “They pull back when they need to, in contrast to Russia, which is like a meat-grinder approach to some of the fighting,” she said.
But Canada’s support for Ukraine goes beyond military aid, with a vision for helping to build a greener, more democratic country.
Massive post-war reconstruction needed
Like many of its allies, Canada tends to rotate its diplomatic staff in August, and Cmoc said she hopes to have a full team of 22 diplomats in place by October.
Their duties will range from assessing mine-removal projects to funding programs that can help women take up roles in politics and business that have been vacated by men sent to the front lines.
Her staff will also be supporting ongoing efforts by Canada’s atomic safety experts to help their Ukrainian colleagues keep the war from causing ecological and nuclear catastrophe at energy plants.
Cmoc said Ukraine is getting a sneak peek of its eventual, massive post-war reconstruction in the Kherson region, which was flooded in June by the destruction of a massive dam.
Countries, including Canada, are looking at how to help locals replace farm equipment and access safe water and energy sources for the upcoming winter.
They’re also providing technical assistance on how Ukraine can become a destination for private-sector capital after the war. “We’re working with them on how [they can] ensure a transparent investment climate,” Cmoc said. “It is definitely a priority at every level of government.”
So far, she said she’s been impressed by how unified the war has made Ukrainians, who for decades have been split along linguistic lines and, at times, hostile to minority groups. And she said she’s noticed native Russian-speakers making an effort to use Ukrainian.
Strong bilateral ties
Cmoc said Canada and Ukraine rarely don’t see eye to eye.
Still, there have been points of disagreement. Ukraine has in the past asked for a no-fly zone, a non-starter for NATO countries that fear direct conflict with Russia. And Canada expressed unease with the U.S. decision this summer to send cluster bombs to Ukraine as its arsenal thinned out.
Last month, Ukrainian Foreign Affairs Minister Dmytro Kuleba asked Ottawa to increase its anti-landmine support and extend military funding beyond the next year.
Ukraine has been antsy about the long-term future of its estimated six million citizens living in other countries, including the 175,000 people who have reached Canada. Kyiv has thanked countries for providing safety but said it hopes its citizens come home when it’s safe to help rebuild, instead of facing a brain drain.
Meanwhile, Cmoc said Canada wants to ramp up its role in anti-corruption projects in Ukraine, such as through training judges and forensic auditors.
“They recognize this is a very important reform; they know that this is one of the stipulations for EU accession,” she said. “We challenge Ukraine; we support Ukraine.”