The disappeared: Ukrainians plead for answers on family members forcefully taken to Russia

Yet another series of war crimes and brutality:

It’s been nearly seven months since Anna Zaitseva and her toddler last came under bombardment by the Russian military in a shelter beneath Ukraine’s Azovstal steel plant – and her young son still cannot fall sleep until she holds her hands over his eyes.

“He’s developed a habit. When he’s trying to sleep, he takes my hands and puts them onto his face to cover it,” Ms. Zaitseva, 25, said in an interview.

The gesture mimics how she used to protect her son, Svyatoslav, as pieces of the bomb shelter’s ceiling rained down on them under the Azovstal steel complex in Mariupol in southeastern Ukraine.

Ms. Zaitseva was one of numerous civilians trapped there for 65 days before a safe-passage operation conducted by the Red Cross this spring.

Now a refugee in Berlin, she travelled to the Halifax International Security Forum this weekend to draw attention to the huge numbers of Ukrainian civilians and soldiers forcefully taken to Russia where they have all but disappeared.

Her husband, Kirillo Zaitsev, 23, was a steel worker turned Azov Regiment soldier. He was one of the last group of Ukrainian fighters holding out in the Azovstal complex until their surrender in mid-May.

Mr. Zaitsev was taken prisoner by the Russians and his wife has not heard from him since. She presumes he’s in a prison camp in Russia, where, by all accounts, Ukrainians are being mistreated and where, she fears, Moscow is failing to live up to the Geneva Convention on the treatment of prisoners of war.

She said photos of Ukrainian soldiers imprisoned in Russia show how they have lost significant amounts of weight; accounts of the conditions say the jailed troops lack access to proper food, water and medicine. “They are trying to kill them physically and kill their morale.”

Olga Stefanishyna, Ukraine’s deputy prime minister for European and Euro-Atlantic integration, told journalists at the Halifax forum that Kyiv estimates 1.5 million Ukrainian women and children have been “forcefully displaced” to Russia.

“We do not have any access to information on where they live or under what conditions,” she said. These Ukrainians are deprived of “any access to communications” that would enable them to talk to those back in Ukraine.

She could not provide an estimate on how many thousands of Ukrainian soldiers such as Kirillo Zaitsev have been taken as prisoners to Russia.

Ms. Zaitseva, who was a French teacher before the war, still copes with post-traumatic stress disorder as well as a concussion from a blast caused by Russia’s bombardment of the steel plant. She was caught in one attack while in a makeshift kitchen one floor above the bomb shelter where she was mixing baby formula for her son and heating it by candle.

Ms. Zaitseva says her breast milk stopped from the stress of the siege and she believes her son would not have lived through the ordeal if soldiers hadn’t discovered a cache of infant formula.

After leaving the steel plant in late April, she and her son and parents were taken to a Russian “filtration camp” where she says she was forced to stripped naked and interrogated by agents from Moscow’s Federal Security Service because she was a wife of an Azov Regiment soldier. The unit has a history of far-right leanings but is now part of the Ukrainian army.

“They told me to take off all my clothing and they were touching me everywhere,” Ms. Zaitseva said.

“They took our phones and downloaded all of the data. They told me to tell the truth otherwise I could be killed.”

She said she believes the only reason she was allowed to go free from the Russian filtration camp was because representatives of the Red Cross and United Nations had accompanied her there.

Ms. Zaitseva said civilians hiding in the labyrinthine steel plant were chronically short of food and forced to use rain and melted snow for water. A lack of sufficient power meant they had to live in complete darkness for 12 hours a day. The Soviet-era bomb shelter was plagued by high levels of humidity and she had bedsores from sleeping on makeshift beds.

People were hungry all the time. Some played games related to food, pretending they were in cafés or supermarkets. Many lost weight. Ms. Zaitseva lost 10 kilograms and her father lost 20. When they emerged after more than two months their skin was pale.

She worries for Ukrainian children forcefully taken to Russia. “Russians are taught to hate Ukrainians and nobody will adopt a Ukrainian child.” Ms. Zaitseva fears these parentless-children will end up exploited for human trafficking or worse.

Her story is also part of a new documentary, Freedom on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight For Freedom by Israeli-American director Evgeny Afineevsky, which was screened at the Halifax forum, a gathering of Canadian, American and European leaders, as well as military and security experts from NATO and its allies.

Source: The disappeared: Ukrainians plead for answers on family members forcefully taken to Russia

Case of woman wrongly accused of spying for Russia requires ministerial review, intelligence expert says

Pretty fundamental mix-up along with unwillingness to consider an error, until forced by the courts. Wark’s point regarding the systemic weaknesses sting:

Most Canadians seem to have an extraordinary — sometimes naive — faith that if they tell the truth, their government will do the right thing, come to the right conclusion, or make the right decision.

It is one of those charming, but also maybe alarming aspects of our character.

David and Elena Crenna certainly fell into that category at the beginning of their bizarre six-year legal odyssey that saw the Canada Border Services Agency’s war crimes investigation unit accuse Elena, a former Russian translator, of being a post-Cold War spy.

The Liberal government quietly abandoned its case against her last month after a Federal Court judge essentially challenged justice department lawyers and border agency officials to read the legal and dictionary definition of espionage.

“I am unable to reasonably find any reason to believe the applicant was engaged in anything secret, clandestine, surreptitious or covert,” Federal Court Justice Henry Brown ruled in April.

Crenna had previously been deemed inadmissible to Canada by an immigration adjudicator who sided with a Canadian Border Agency assessment that concluded she helped the Russian security service spy.

Governments talk a lot today fighting disinformation, particularly Russian and Chinese online attacks and smears, but abjectly fail to appreciate that lying to sow discord and lying to save one’s skin is a time-honoured, well-honed tradition of spies, according to one of Canada’s leading intelligence experts.

More that, there is a dearth of institutional knowledge, understanding and significantly an appreciation of recent history within federal officialdom, said Wesley Wark, a professor at the University of Ottawa.

He is withering in his criticism of Crenna’s case, and frightened by its implications.

‘A ruthless waste of time’

“This isn’t just a minor case of bureaucracy gone slightly astray,” Wark said in an interview. “I think it is a major case of a bureaucracy that just didn’t know how to operate in the face of these kinds of threats. We need to be able to distinguish between what’s real and what’s not.”

The federal case against Elena Crenna — which Wark described as “a ruthless waste of time” — rested on the dubious word of a now-dead Russian defector.

While doing translation and marketing for a humanitarian housing project in Tver, Russia, the former Elena Filatova said she was approached by an agent of SVR (formerly known as the KGB and later the FSB) who wanted to know what the Canadians were doing.

It is a major case of a bureaucracy that just didn’t know how to operate in the face of these kinds of threats. We need to be able to distinguish between what’s real and what’s not.– Wesley Wark, one of Canada’s top intelligence experts

She did, with the full knowledge and support of her boss, now husband, David Crenna, who said he and Elena were obliged to be transparent with Russian authorities to avoid having the translation project shut down. The pair eventually married in 2012.

Elena Crenna told CBC News in the spring that she never passed along secret information about project she was working on, and did not covertly gather intelligence.

Years later, a FSB defector wrote a tell-all book that alleged a Canadian disarmament program in the 1990s had been penetrated by Russian intelligence.

Without naming either David or Elena Crenna, Sergei Tretyakov claimed Russian intelligence had set a “honey trap” to collect information about the project, referring to the relationship that developed between the Crennas.(In intelligence circles, a honey trap is an operation that uses sex or romantic entanglements to trick or blackmail targets into giving up information.)

Canadian and American intelligence officials, including CSIS and the FBI, interviewed the couple and found their version of events credible.

It was only when Canadian immigration officials were about to allow Elena to stay permanently in the country that border services objected using the information the Crennas had truthfully offered up to the agency in interviews.

It was “Kafkaesque,” said Wark, who believes it is imperative that the agency not be allowed to simply walk away from the case without some kind of introspection and review.

“This is more than just a human tragedy because I think the case reveals a lack of expertise within CBSA, which is troubling given that CBSA is responsible for border security risk management, and responsible for administration of the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act,” he said. “I think it reveals some considerable dysfunction among the elements of the Canadian government.”

Wark said it demonstrates “a very significant lack of understanding about the nature of espionage threats” and complete “lack of understanding of the historical context that they were looking at in this particular case.”The threats in today’s world are too serious and complex for border services to make mistakes of this kind in the future, he said.

Wark is calling on Public Safety Minister Bill Blair to institute a review of how the case was handled. Failing that, he is recommending that the National Security Intelligence Review Agency or even the National Security and Intelligence Committee of Parliamentarians look at what happened.

Canada Border Services has routinely declined comment on the case, citing privacy.

For his part, David Crenna doesn’t want to see all of the agency turned upside down — just the war crimes unit that initiated the case against his wife.

The federal government must ensure that section of the agency is “equipped and trained and capable of doing the kind of national security job” that is expected of it, he said.

Federal officials fell for allegations ‘hook, line and sinker’

To watch federal officials “swallow hook, line and sinker” the narrative of a Russian defector trained in disinformation was disheartening and somewhat frightening, he said.

“Essentially, we thought this being Canada that if we told the truth and co-operated, they would eventually come to the conclusion that we were telling the truth,” said David Crenna, who must now go through all of the federal paperwork for his wife to be readmitted to Canada.

She has been stuck in the U.S. during the coronavirus pandemic where she had been awaiting the results of the court case.

There is no indication when Elena Crenna will be allowed to return.

Source: https://www.cbc.ca/news/politics/russian-spy-case-1.5678875

ICYMI: Getting information on the ground on the Islamic State

Fascinating reporting in the Globe of some of the efforts to collect information on war crimes and other human rights violations:

There are risks, however, that come with sending investigators into a combat zone with armed opposition groups. Some outside observers worry about the reliability of the embedded investigators, in part because there is always a risk they could become involved in wartime atrocities themselves.

Documentation collected now could be dismissed by a future war crimes tribunal for multiple reasons. Questions about the investigators’ methods, issues with the way witnesses are interrogated, and errors in tracking custody of documents that are retrieved are all issues that could be picked apart by a defence team.

But many observers seem to believe the benefits of running an investigation now – rather than waiting until the conflict is over – far outweigh the risks.

Independent groups like the one investigating Islamic State also have a higher tolerance for risk than the more formal investigation by the United Nations commission of inquiry on Syria, which has produced reports on atrocities but is not focused on linking specific crimes to the individuals who may have ordered them.

“There is going to be an immense security challenge once the conflict ends,” one investigator said. “If the Syrians don’t want to endure a decade or more of terrorism, as experienced by Iraq, they’re going to need a security foundation, and that foundation will be built on information derived from investigations now.”

Getting information on the ground on the Islamic State – The Globe and Mail.