For the second time in a month, local residents in North American capital cities are expressing outrage at vandalism and property damage carried out by Russian embassy staff in their cities. Both instances have seen Russian diplomatic staff attack and destroy materials left in front of their gates in support of the Ukrainian people, with both incidents undertaken by men in cars bearing diplomatic license plates.
The actions have left local residents – including those that have actively protested in support of Ukraine, and others simply offended by the “arrogant behaviour” of Russian guests in their communities – publicly questioning if Russian visas should be revoked or even embassies closed.
On Aug. 1, a video went viral at the Russian embassy in Washington DC that provoked international condemnation and disgust. Protesters had been photographing young children quietly laying sunflowers in front of the embassy gates. Minutes later, an embassy employee was captured on video, emerging from a car with diplomatic plates, to stomp on the flowers.
Another diplomatic incident has since occurred in Ottawa, in front of the capital’s Russian embassy. A yellow-and-blue-painted children’s bicycle was affixed to a city pole on the street, in memorial of the nearly 400 Ukrainian children killed by Russian bombings since Feb. 24. Close to midnight on the night of Aug. 16, embassy staff were captured on camera by a local resident vandalising the memorial with black paint, and were accused of painting the letter ‘Z’ on city property.
When Ottawa resident and speechwriter Peter O’Neil confronted the “giggling, cackling, diplomatic brats” and called them “war crime supporters” as he photographed them, an embassy employee retorted with a vulgar sexual euphemism.
Ottawa citizens have expressed outrage on social media following the latest incident of vandalism, calling for the perpetrators to be expelled.
“Suspected Russians are now vandalizing the streets of Ottawa,” one proclaimed.
“Close the Russian embassy NOW. No more visas and send these Russians back to Russia,” read another.
“Russian ‘diplomats’ committing hate-motivated vandalism with no action from Canadian authorities yet, maybe worth a story?”, asked another citizen, tagging local journalists at CBC, Global, CTV, and the Ottawa Police.
On the morning of Aug. 17, scores of Twitter posts tagged the Ottawa Police, Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, and Minister of Foreign Affairs Mélanie Joly, with footage of the overnight vandalism.
A #Russian embassy official stomped on sunflowers brought by children in #WashingtonDC.
The day before, sunflowers planted in April by the Ukrainian diaspora in front of the Russian embassy were also destroyed, Ukrainian Ambassador to the United States @OMarkarova said. pic.twitter.com/9WMo0yMnTN
— NEXTA (@nexta_tv) August 2, 2022
Defiance among Ukraine’s supports
The Russian Embassy of Canada is located on Free-Libre Ukraine Street, the stretch of Charlotte Street renamed as such by the Ottawa City Council in March 2022 in protest over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
A core protesters’ group that gathers in front of the embassy in the Canadian capital remains extremely active even after almost six months, gathering daily to wave Ukrainian flags and blast embassy staff with a megaphone playlist that includes the Ukrainian national anthem, “Bayraktar”, and “Stefania”.
The group is comprised of a wide cross-section of Ukrainian-Canadians, Ukrainians living in Canada, and non-Ukrainian Canadians who simply condemn genocide, mass rape and other war crimes.
Local residents of all stripes have remained roundly supportive of the protesters through the months since Russia launched its all-out invasion, with a large portion still pumping fists, flashing peace signs, or honking in solidarity as they drive past the famed curve of the street in front of the embassy. As such, the embassy these days is regularly seen draped in a large banner that reads “STOP PUTIN’S WAR.”
Meanwhile, the Russian embassy’s menacing gates remain stained with red paint from the winter, despite what protesters report as an attempted “nuclear-level chemical cleaning” to finally “purify” them for Victory Day events. Red splotches from paintballs and traces of rotten eggs are still visible on the imposing building’s upper windows and balustrades.
Poker faces – but some embassy staff are clearly troubled
After nearly six months of daily action, Ottawa protesters describe the embattled embassy staff as mostly non-communicative, albeit with occasional glares and sneers directed their way.
As one consistent protester, Angela Kalyta, reports following daily interactions with embassy staff over many months: “We know their faces by now. We have nicknames for all of them, too. A lot of them just scowl. But there are a lot of ‘true believers’ in there who, if they talk to us, simply parrot Russian propaganda.”
Members of the Ottawa group have identified the man in the Aug.16 Twitter photo as one of the cadre that they have labelled as “true believers” – a staff member who will argue with and insult protesters.
At the same time, Kalyta does report occasional instances wherein protesters have been able to “get through to” embassy staff: “There are a lot of poker faces, but we have also had some interesting interactions. There are some staff in there who we can see are having a lot of trouble working on that side of the fence.”
In particular, Kalyta mentions a female member of embassy staff betraying emotion when faced with a large May protest against mass rapes inflicted by Russian soldiers in Ukraine. “When they’re driving out and we’re yelling ‘send your rapists home’, you could see that some staff had trouble with that.”
Kalyta notes, however, that even those who might display signs of conscience are hamstrung. “Of course, they can’t say anything. One of them talked to one of us and then said, ‘Now I have to write a report because I interacted with you’, before scuttling off. So even if they do support us, they absolutely cannot express it in any way.”
From those who might harbor silent sympathy to vandals who destroy memorials and hurl abusive language at residents, Russian embassies around the globe are seemingly comprised of a cross-section of workers from bureaucrats to propagandists and outright perpetrators.
In this heated summer of viral incidents – such as Ukrainians being assaulted by Russians in Europe’s capital cities, and the European Union finally discussing visa bans in response – the state of diplomatic relations between Russia and North American countries is also coming under increased scrutiny.
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