SIMRAN: Welcome to Deep Dive from The Walrus, a weekly podcast that takes a deeper look into the happenings at The Walrus. I’m Simran Singh. On this week’s episode:
ANGELA: Since 2015, Canada’s had deployments of ground troops in Ukraine, working to reform the country’s military after the invasion of Crimea. In light of Russia’s most recent invasion of Ukraine, Sarah Lawrynuik wanted to take a look back at what the Canadian Armed Forces did there and how the training it provided has affected the country’s ability to hold off Russian advancements.
SIMRAN: It’s the long view on a story that has been a long time coming, in a war everyone hoped could be avoided. Here is that conversation with Sarah Lawrynuik.
ANGELA: How long have you been interested in covering Eastern Europe and Ukraine?
SARAH: So in 2019, I actually got a grant to go and spend six weeks travelling reporting doing in depth features from Eastern Europe including Ukraine, Poland, and Hungary. And so it’s been a few years that I’ve been interested was it was six weeks on the ground, but it was, I’ve gotta say like three or four months of buildup and research – and I was just trying to understand what I was walking into. of the pieces I’ve published. I probably spoke to, like, I wanna say 6 or 7x the number of people who have made it into any of the articles that have you know, made it into print or audio form. So, it’s been extensive.
And then the pandemic happened and my plan had been to continue reporting from there, but like travel became impossible. And so it just kind of fell off my radar as like pretty much everything other than the pandemic fell off everyone’s radar for two years. And then the invasion happened and it was kind of the unthinkable yet had been something that was, was thought was a possibility. And so when it happened, it just seemed surreal. But also this moment of like, of course this happened, this was where it was always gonna go.
ANGELA: This was actually my next question then, as someone who was steeped in the recent conflicts, were you surprised when Russia invaded?
SARAH: I wasn’t anticipating it happening to be honest, but at the same time when I woke up and I remember like, I live with my brother and he walked into the room and he, it happened. And I was like, yeah, of course it did. And we just like, we’re both Ukrainian-Canadian second generation, and we just kind of had a hug and a cry because it was just this really heartbreaking moment to realise what was on the line for, for Ukrainians.
Both of my paternal grand of parents came from that region and my, on my maternal side they were more fluid in terms of like, they were German Mennonites, but in that region. And so my whole family kind of comes from that area. And my grandfather came before world war II. My grandmother was a slave labourer during the, during World War II. And so she was very impacted. And quite frankly, no one in our family ever really thought to go back because we didn’t talk about Ukraine. She was very, she loved the culture. She loved the people, she loved the language, all of those things, but it was also this place where all of these horrific things had happened to her. And so I was the first one in my direct family to have gone back and I was there to report on a war again. And so it, it kind of felt like it had come full circle and yeah, it was this very surreal experience. But also I was so to have gone back, cuz this country just amazed me and surprised me. And it’s so beautiful. Like just not … it’s not something you’re gonna capture in a war for sure. But it like it’s beauty and the people how kind they are. It was all just, it really blew me away.
ANGELA: Are your grandparents still with you?
SARAH: No, no, they aren’t. I suspect they would still not be speaking to me for having reported from, from Ukraine as a war zone if they were alive, but they are not
ANGELA: What is it like to have to watch what is happening on screens from so far away?
SARAH: So yeah, incredibly difficult personally and, and not partially for the reasons because I’m afraid of what will happen to the country and the people. But also because I want to be there like as a journalist I’ve reported there from there before There was a realising that like, this isn’t a place where I’m needed right now, when it initially happened, it was so oversaturated with journalists, but it it’s something I’m definitely considering doing in the near future. So I’ll be back. It’s just a matter of when the lull and the coverage comes and when it’s appropriate for me to go. Yeah. that was the sentiment that I was actually just trying to capture with this piece because Canada has done so much and it’s not that it’s been insignificant and it’s not just Canada, the United States, the United a kingdom, but it didn’t stop the worst from happening. And now the worst has happened and we’re sitting on the sidelines unable to really intervene. Of course, military aid is flowing into the country and that’s not to undermine it, but it is, it is just this very interesting dichotomy of like, you have the support of some of the strongest militaries in the world. And yet you’re still being invaded because you aren’t a member of the club. You’re not a member of NATO. And in 2019, when I reported from there, there was there was a military consultant who exactly for old that this would happen. He was like, when the fighting comes, everyone will leave and Ukrainians will be left standing here on their own.
And that’s not to speak ill of the Canadian military or the American military. Of course they had to leave. There’s, there’s a lot of known reasons for why they had to do that, but it is this very complicated relationship and they did leave them. And so I started reaching out to soldiers, individual soldiers. We always hear from, you know, the top brass, but I wanted to hear from people who had actually trained people on the ground there and hear about what they felt and how they were looking at it. And they’re struggling in a lot of, in, in much the same way that I am in that they wanna be there doing the thing that they’re trained to do. I wanna be there as a journalist. They wanna be there as soldiers. Of course the Canadian military is actually now banned that as a possibility, you would actually have to quit your job as a soldier in order to go, but that’s happened too. So it’s, it’s just a very interesting point in the story that we’re doing as much as we can, but we’ve also abandoned them. And they’re both, both of those things are true.
ANGELA: You Tweeted about this story you wrote for The Walrus, and this line really struck me – “what it’s like to leave your allies when they need you the most…”
SARAH: I mean, that quote, That quote struck me as, as very interesting for a couple of reasons, because it speaks to what Canada was Canada and other NATO countries were trying to do initially. And they thought the best they could do is de-escalate. Okay. We’ll just teach Ukrainians how to, you know, mend people in the field. If they get shot that way, Russia won’t see us as an aggressor. Okay. That was a good theory. It obviously didn’t pan out as planned. And I don’t think anyone can, can, or really does feel guilty about being about that because that was, you know, the best decision with the amount of information and the knowledge we had at the time. We, I say collectively, like I was making that decision somehow, obviously not. But it does just, it feels like it’s not enough. Like it
ANGELA: In your story for The Walrus, this last line: “The initial [training] focus was all medical. It was defensive stuff. Canada didn’t want to be seen to be helping anybody to kill anybody,” Grant says. “It’s nice helping them after they’re shot. But it would have been a lot better if we were helping them before they’re shot, so they don’t get shot.” Can you talk about that?
SARAH: Even if it defies rationality, it feels like it’s not enough because people are dying and you see the images and they’re just heartbreaking. And then you start hearing about the downstream consequences of this war, food shortages around the world that will impact so many. And it just really feels frustrating and not enough. And that was kind of the conclusion this article came to was that NATO has its real shortcomings. Like, it’s great. If you’re in the club, it works as a great defence deterrent against conflict. But if you’re not, we’ve not figured out how to protect countries that fall outside of the, that. And I mean, this doesn’t just apply to Ukraine. It applies to Syria as well. Like the same thing happened. We could help, we could send aid, but it just doesn’t cut. It. It doesn’t save the lives of the people who are feeling the brunt of Russian aggression. Absolutely. It’s, it’s not, yeah, this is well understood by yeah. Russia and it’s being exploited. So In the stories I’ve told about conflict, I think what I find most compelling is finding the seeds of the next com conflict. It it’s always predictable because this, this conflict is going on and understandably Ukrainians are, are furious. They’re filled with hatred for Putin, but that’s also following over onto other Russians all things that are related to Russia. I saw a post, a friend, a friend in Ukraine posted about how they’d actually changed the name of a type of pierogi because it, it was connected to Russia. So they’ve changed the name of the pierogi. It’s kind of like, you know, when we stop calling French fries, French fries for a while, it’s kind of along those lines, but it’s this hatred, it’s this brewing hatred rid towards Russians. And I understand where it comes from. It’s absolutely understandable, but it’s also setting up dynamics that will last for a lot longer than this conflict will.
ANGELA: What’s the next story you want to tell about Ukraine?
SARAH: I find it really important all the human stories that reflect that because it helps us understand where the dynamics are shifting what the, the really long term consequences of this war might be. And it also focuses on a nation trying to find itself because Ukraine as Ukraine has not existed for all of that long in 2014, with the Euro Ida revolution, things changed a lot. What it meant to be Ukrainian changed a lot. And now that’s going to shift again, because this, this war is uniting Ukrainians. And in some ways it’s really beautiful. And in some ways it’s really horrifying.
Well, it was the same thing when I reported from Iraq. Like you heard these people with this burning fiery hatred, and they talked about having documents that proved who had supported ISIS. Well, it’s like, okay, maybe those are legitimate. Maybe they aren’t, but the hatred is there and you know, that’s gonna play out for a long time. They’re just like, there’s no way around it. And that was something I found very compelling about the reporting I did from there. And it’s, it’s repeated in all conflicts. You, you see the seeds of what the dynamics will be in their region for, for decades.
ANGELA: That’s my conversation with Sarah Lawrynuik. Her story was edited by Harley Rustad, and it’s live at thewalrus.ca. You can find the link in our show notes.
This episode of The Deep Dive was produced by me, Simran Singh and Angela Misri, and it was edited by Angela Misri. Thanks so much to Sarah Lawrynuik for joining us this week.
Music for this podcast is provided by Audio Jungle. Our theme song is “This Podcast Theme” by Inplus Music. Additional music includes “Stay Cool” by Loops Lab and “Spring Thaw,” “Virtutes Instrumenti,” and “An Upsetting Theme” by Kevin MacLeod.
Spring Thaw by Kevin MacLeod
An Upsetting Theme by Kevin MacLeod
Virtutes Instrumenti by Kevin MacLeod
Don’t forget to subscribe to Deep Dive from The Walrus on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts. And if you like what you heard, please leave us a review and rating. It really helps people find the podcast.
See you next week when we take our next deep dive.