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As Russia broadens influence, here’s why Canada remains invested in Ukraine

Five years have passed since Ukrainians turned out in droves to the streets of Kiev and ousted their pro-Russian president.

The dreams in the streets then were of a future that saw Ukraine moving closer to Europe and away from further ties with Russia, with free trade and a reform deal designed to bring Ukraine’s institutions — frequently plagued by corruption — more into line with European Union standards.

READ MORE: Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskiy meets with Trudeau in Toronto

But in the years since, Russia annexed Crimea and has stoked conflict in the eastern part of the country, all while linguistic and cultural tensions have escalated between those who identify more closely with Russia and those who want Ukraine to move away from the influence of the Kremlin.

Corruption had also remained a persistent problem.

So in March, voters in Ukraine took to the polls and replaced the president who was supposed to fulfill the dreams of the 2014 revolution with a new one whose only experience as a politician was playing one in a popular Ukrainian TV series.

WATCH BELOW: Putin says liberal idea is ‘destroying itself’

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Volodymyr Zelenskiy, 41, has pledged to hold a referendum on whether to join the European Union and NATO, even though Ukraine’s constitution includes a clause committing it to becoming a member of both blocs as key pillars of its future.

He also says he is open to holding talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

His first international trip, however, was to Canada for the Ukraine Reform Conference hosted in Toronto on Tuesday and Wednesday.

Toronto is home to tens of thousands of Canadians of Ukrainian descent, with a total of more than 1,359,655 Ukrainian Canadians spread out across the country, according to Statistics Canada.

But while the blood ties between Canada and Ukraine run deep — the first documented Ukrainian immigrants arrived in 1891 — the resilience of the relationship is also rooted in the fact that both countries face high stakes and threats to their interests if the ties weaken.

READ MORE: Ukraine election proves Canada’s support works — and must continue, ambassador says

During a joint press conference with Zelenskiy on Tuesday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was frank in stressing what is at stake for Ukraine, Canada and the West more broadly if Russian aggression and influence spreads.

“Russia’s actions are not only a threat to Ukraine but to international law,” he said.

“The Russian incursion into Ukraine is a particularly egregious example of it, but we’ve seen plenty of larger countries violating international laws and thinking they can get away with it … That’s why it’s important for like-minded countries to stand together.”

The election of Zelenskiy comes after Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election and the ongoing constitutional crisis in Venezuela, where Russian troops have been accused of aiding the Latin American country’s embattled president against the opposition.

WATCH BELOW: Trump says Russia needs to ‘get out’ of Venezuela

Russia is now viewed as a key ally for Venezuelan President Nicholas Maduro against the push by the Lima Group and the U.S. to get Maduro to hand over power to Juan Guaido, recognized by roughly 65 countries as the legitimate interim president pending free and fair elections.

In the midst of the tensions, Ukraine marks both a physical and symbolic border between the interests of the West and Russia, one expert suggests.

Maureen Flaherty, acting director of the University of Manitoba’s Centre for Ukrainian Canadian Studies, said the significance of Ukraine to Canada, and to the West, lies in its status as a “borderland” between two very different regions with very different visions of the future.

“It’s being kind of a buffer zone between Europe and Russia, and now I think it’s really important for us to support Ukraine to develop fully as an independent democracy so they can stand up for themselves,” she said. “Not necessarily against Russia but certainly with the rest of Europe.”

Flaherty said there are parallels to be drawn in how democratic western countries have responded to Russian encroachment in Ukraine and how they are working to support the re-establishment of democracy in Venezuela. The common theme is the risk that authoritarian influence poses to the international rule of law the West is built upon.

That foundation includes respect for human rights, free expression and democratic values, she said.

Given Zelenskiy is largely an unknown commodity, Flaherty added that the next few days of the conference will be high stakes in building personal ties with the Ukrainian president so he is invested in keeping Ukraine on track towards rebuilding its civil society and not pivoting east towards Russia.

“It’s really crucial for alliances to be built, probably personally as well as otherwise, so that this man will know he has allies in other places, too,” she said. “We don’t want to alienate the guy, but we do want to help influence him positively with this western part of the world.”

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