Nearly 400,000 people have fled Russia since Vladimir Putin last week announced the largest forced mobilization since World War II. This has led to days-long traffic jams at Russia’s international borders, bomb attacks on enlistment stations and $10,000 plane tickets “to anywhere”.

Military service in Russia has already shown itself to be accompanied by poor training, use of pre-World War I equipment and demoralized forces. Putin’s latest move has even pushed many conscripts to surrender using a dedicated phone number provided by Ukraine to do so.

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But while Putin fumbles and Russia’s army splinters, the Kremlin bureaucracy machine has now resorted to making lists – of Canadians.

Bewildering blacklist

In a blacklist that has puzzled many, 87 Canadians were sanctioned on Sep. 22, ranging from usual suspects such as billionaire CEOs to seemingly random politicians; from the internationally known to premiers of the arctic territories of Nunavut and the Yukon; and from top brass generals and colonels to rank-and-file military people.

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A smattering of activists, writers, non-governmental organization (NGO) workers and academics have also been declared “pro-Banderists” – a term used to refer to those who favor the type of “Ukrainianism” that contrasts sharply with Moscow’s ideal.

Many have questioned the strange timing of such a list. For its part, the Russian Foreign Ministry stated on Sep 22: “In response to the sanctions that the regime of Canadian [Prime Minister] Justin Trudeau keeps imposing on Russia… Russia has banned entry to 87 Canadian citizens.”

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The official notice from Moscow vows to keep playing tit for tat: “Given that the Canadian sanctions list is likely to expand, new announcements from Russia on the ‘listing’ of Canadian citizens will follow. We proceed based on the principle of reciprocity.”

While Western countries have publicly kicked out oligarchs and seized their property to the tune of billions, the vast majority of those on Moscow’s latest Canada blacklist have never been to Russia and have no connections there. Many in Canada regard the whole affair with bemusement, taking it as a badge of honor and receiving congratulations from friends and strangers alike.

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Towards the bottom of the list, there are some names that, if one didn’t know better, might draw puzzlement as to why they are there at all. These include Peter O’Neil of Natural Resources Canada, Angela Kalyta (an “activist”) and myself, listed as “journalist/blogger and writer of articles for Kyiv Post.”

How this Ottawa trio became official, lifetime enemies of Moscow

It began last month when I visited the Russian embassy in the Canadian capital of Ottawa to interview its dogged community of daily protestors. As a correspondent on international art and activism for Kyiv Post, I’ve written in the past about protest art and actions at Russian embassies around the world.

I therefore wanted to ask this group what had motivated them to come, day in and day out, for the past six months.

I found a committed group of all ages and ethnicities – including students, grandparents and former refugees – who simply despised the war crimes they saw taking place on a daily basis. Some shared family histories about encounters with the Russian empire. The group showed me a yellow and blue painted “ghost bike” memorial they had created for murdered Ukrainian children since the full-scale invasion began.

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That same night, local resident Peter O’Neil passed by the embassy just before midnight to see three men vandalizing the bicycle memorial. When he confronted them, they cursed at him, but he got a photo. That photo has since become something of a smoking gun – making the rounds on international platform Twitter, being covered by Canadian media and subject to debate in Parliament.

The resulting public furor is because the vandals in question weren’t just local troublemakers, or even ordinary Russians residing in Ottawa. They were easily identifiable as Russian embassy staff, with red diplomatic plates and numbers clearly visible on their car in the photo. They not only vandalized the memorial but spray-painted “Z” symbols all over Ottawa city sidewalks. This was just a week after the “Zhad been debated in Parliament for designation as a hate symbol, on par with the swastika.

I wrote two international pieces about the incident for Kyiv Post. Simultaneously, the crime kicked off a social media firestorm of sorts. The Russian embassy staff, in their red-handed state, had managed to provoke a serious international incident.

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Furious people began to call and email the Ottawa Police, the federal Royal Canadian Mounted Police, Justin Trudeau’s office and that of Foreign Minister Mélanie Joly. The Ukrainian Canadian Congress put out the strongest of statements calling for diplomatic expulsion, suspension of visas and designation of Russia as a terrorist state. They testified the same in Parliament just weeks ago. They asked for responses, but beyond press releases from federal and police offices declaring “monitoring of the situation” and “no place for hate crimes in Canada”, they haven’t received any more answers or actions.

The lack of a governmental response beyond a few canned statements has done nothing to lower the temperature between the protesters’ group, the local neighborhood and broader Ottawa community, and the Russian embassy. One diminutive senior citizen received a “slit your throat” gesture from an embassy worker last week as she stood in front of the gates with her Ukrainian flag. The “Z” symbols continue to pop up on pro-Ukrainian posters on the street in front of the embassy.

One young Ukrainian-Canadian woman, Alexandra, came to Canada at age seven. She pronounced the vandalism of the children’s memorial “sick”. “I hope there are some consequences. They can’t keep getting away with things!” she asserted. “The Canadian response is not strong enough. It’s not aggressive enough. These people need to be punished. They don’t speak any other language,” she continued.

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Vitaly, a ten-year resident of Ottawa and immigrant from Kazakhstan, echoed her: “They can’t respect you. They understand only force. It’s time [for Canada] to become more tough.”

Vigilante attacks on Russian embassies have been taking place in global capitals for months now. Given the current circumstances in Ottawa, it seems unsurprising that they have now been on the rise here.

In August, a man with two full cartons of eggs hit most embassy cars, shouting “get out of Canada” and “go back to Russia”, before calmly turning himself over to police. Last week, a Molotov cocktail, caught on surveillance video, landed on the lawn in the middle of the night. No arrests have been made.

It’s clear that times have been heated in Ottawa these last few weeks between Canadians and their Russian guests. And then, all the way from Moscow, this latest menacing list.

“Making the cut”

It was no surprise to see more members of the Ukrainian Canadian Congress (UCC), along with other partner community organizations of the Baltic states in Canada, on the bans and sanctions blacklist. Orest Zakydalsky of the UCC estimated his adding to the list of Russia’s persona non grata puts the number of sanctioned UCC executives and staff at around 90 people.

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As Zakydalsky said in response to his status on the ban list, “I can only echo the statement that UCC President Alexandra Chyczij issued in March when she and most of the UCC’s leadership was sanctioned.” That official statement, printed on an ornate UCC letterhead, consisted of one word: “LOL.”

Yet imagine our surprise when Russia released this list of 87 “high-profile” Canadians on Thursday to find it included O’Neil, myself and Angela Kalyta (a regular fixture at the embassy protests and PhD student) who was simply quoted in the Kyiv Post embassy vandalism articles.

As O’Neil noted of the asymmetric attempt at a response from Moscow, “I’m naturally proud to be sanctioned by a pariah government led by a blundering war criminal. And delighted to get under the embassy’s thin skin. But also bemused. While the West sanctions billionaire oligarchs and top Kremlin apparatchiks, they go after pipsqueaks like me. The West confiscates yachts. Will Russia snatch my inflatable $150 kayak?”

One thing is certain – Russia no longer remotely controls the information space to anywhere near the levels it had got used to engineering in recent years. Placement on the list has hardly inspired fear or concern. Perhaps even more accurately, those on it are happy to be so.

Kalyta spoke about the pride her relatives in Ukraine felt when she shared the news that she was banned from Russia for life, explaining: “I felt like I had won the lottery when I found out! I’m very honored to have made the list, but I also laugh at how unimportant I am compared to others sanctioned. Their backlash is so petty.”

Kalyta noted that the trolling relationship between the daily protesters and the embassy employees, by now nearly akin to familiar old enemies, turned surreal the other day when one of the now well-known staff did a double take at her. “Wait, you’re on the list?” he asked incredulously. “Even they don’t understand why I made it,” Kalyta laughed.

As youth culture MTL Blog wrote of what they called Russia’s “bizarre” list and its ever-expanding iterations since February “they’re up to 905 people now – anyone you know?”

It seems that increasing numbers of Canadians are now able to say: “Believe it or not, yes!”.

Dr. Kerry McElroy is an academic, writer, editor and tutor.

The views expressed are the author’s and not necessarily of Kyiv Post.

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