Russia’s ambassador to Canada faced down hecklers Tuesday as he pushed back against what he called anti-Russian hysteria and stereotypes, but said Moscow had no intention of invading Ukraine.
Amid tension over what critics see as Russia’s expansionist meddling in its neighbour, Georgiy Mamedov told a business audience that fears of full-scale Russian military intervention are unfounded.
“Ukraine is on the brink of civil war,” Mamedov said.
“(But) I can give you my personal assurances: Our troops won’t cross the Ukrainian border.”
Mamedov’s speech to an unusually feisty Empire Club audience was part history lesson — through a Russian lens — and part criticism of his country’s critics.
“I hoped that this Cold War suspicions and legacy were behind us,” Mamedov said. “Unfortunately, that proved to be wrong lately.”
He insisted the ousting of Ukraine’s president, Viktor Yanukovych, in February was a “coup” fired by anti-Russian sentiment in the country’s west.
The situation in Ukraine, he said, is a “tragedy.”
“What started as an anti-corruption revolution was hijacked by nationalists with a very Russophobic agenda,” Mamedov said.
“Whether you like it or not, there is only one legitimate president in Ukraine according to the Ukrainian constitution: Mr. Yanukovych.”
As he spoke, some members of the audience jeered. Signs saying “Lies” and “Propaganda” appeared.
At one point, someone shouted “not true,” prompting the ambassador to plead with the hecklers to let him have his say.
“Just don’t throw pies at me,” he quipped.
John Moskalyk, of the Canada-Ukraine Chamber of Commerce, denounced Mamedov’s views as “fantasy.”
He said he took no comfort in the assurances that Russian troops would stay out of Ukraine.
“The Russians have consistently over the last 70 years made assurances to foreign nations that they’ve never lived up to,” Moskalyk said.
Following Yanukovych’s ouster, Russia annexed Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula. Since then, pro-Russian gunmen have seized control of government buildings in eastern Ukraine to back demands for closer ties to Moscow.
Mamedov was unapologetic.
Crimea has historically been considered part of Russia that former Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev gave away in 1953 for “murky” reasons, the ambassador said.
“The blood that soaks the land of Crimea is shared by our people,” he said.
Of the 20,000 Ukrainian troops who were in Crimea when it was annexed last month, he said, only 3,000 decided to go back to Ukraine while the rest have joined the Russian army.
Lada Roslycky, a consultant with Global Concepts and Communications in Alexandria, Va., dismissed the speech.
“I found it very disappointing to see that Russian propaganda is being dispersed in such a potent matter,” Roslycky said. “We heard what they want people to think.”
The federal government has imposed sanctions against Moscow and called Russian intervention in Ukraine a threat to world peace.
But Mamedov accused Canada of starting a “sanctions war,” saying such measures have never had much effect in world affairs.
On Tuesday, Russia expelled a first secretary at the Canadian Embassy in Moscow in retaliation for the earlier expulsion of a Russian military attache from Ottawa.
Mamedov called the tit-for-tat expulsions “simple stuff, nothing relevant.”
Last week, the Harper government dressed down Mamedov over the situation in Ukraine, sources told The Canadian Press.
“They regularly give me a dressing up, and of course I respond,” Mamedov said, suggesting Canada’s carping from the sidelines was of little value.
In Prague Tuesday, Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird said Canada will stand with NATO’s eastern members in the face of aggression.
Mamedov said he was optimistic the crisis in Ukraine would settle down.
“Huge changes are dramatic and revolutions are messy,” he said.