OTTAWA — Ukraine's ambassador to Canada says her country is investigating more than 28,000 suspected war crimes, including the killing of 373 children by Russian forces.
Ambassador Yulia Kovaliv says the crimes being documented and probed, with help from Canadian investigators, include the kidnapping of children taken to Russia, and the murder of fleeing civilians.
"What we want to do is to properly document each and every crime and we will bring Russia to justice," she said in an interview, during which she was called by Ukraine's prosecutor general about the issue.
Among the war crimes being investigated are the discovery of 458 bodies, including 12 children, in Bucha, a suburb of Kyiv occupied for 33 days by the Russians.
Efforts are also being made to bring kidnapped Ukrainian children back from Russia.
In an interview on the eve of Ukrainian Independence Day on Wednesday, she said Vladimir Putin's invasion of Ukraine is not just a military assault, but an effort to erase the country's cultural heritage.
Since it invaded Ukraine six months ago, Russia has launched a systematic drive to destroy everything Ukrainian by burning books, bombing museums and churches, and making people in occupied areas, including schoolchildren, speak Russian, Kovaliv said.
"Russia is now trying to purge the Ukrainians in occupied territories and to issue them Russian passports," she said. "Ukrainians refuse to do it, even under threat."
She also accused Russia of engaging in "energy terrorism," bombing 90 per cent of wind farms and solar energy facilities in Ukraine.
Despite this, Ukraine is trying to boost electricity supplies to neighbouring European countries.
However, she said the situation at a Russian-occupied nuclear power plant — the largest in Europe — is grave, with Ukrainians working "to prevent a catastrophe" in the presence of armed Russian soldiers.
"There is military equipment in the nuclear power plant … that is a huge risk."
International inspectors must be immediately allowed into the Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant, she said, to ensure its safety.
Before coming to Ottawa, the ambassador had a number of senior roles in Ukraine including as deputy head of President Volodymyr Zelenskyy's office, focusing on the economy and international financial organizations.
"When the war broke out, I was working on the board of the biggest state owned oil and gas company," she said.
Yet Ottawa is her first diplomatic post, and an important one, as Canada is one of Ukraine's most steadfast allies and most generous donors, this month giving $450 million to help Ukraine buy gas to prepare for a harsh winter ahead.
As well as more military equipment, she is asking Canada for warm clothing and winter camouflage for Ukraine's troops so they can fight in the snow.
The embassy walls are peppered with photographs of the destruction in Ukraine, including ones of wounded civilians and mothers in hospital beds.
Another grim reminder of the conflict is a large piece of shrapnel from a Russian missile that in March hit a military training base 20 kilometres from the Polish border, killing 43 soldiers.
Only weeks before, Canadian personnel had been at the base training Ukrainian troops.
The ambassador grabbed the piece of Russian rocket just as she was due to leave for Canada in April. It will be auctioned on Wednesday in Toronto on Ukraine's Independence Day to help raise funds for ambulances and rehabilitation facilities.
Since arriving in Canada, the ambassador says, she has been heartened not only by the generosity and unwavering support of the Canadian government, but by "how much yellow and blue (there is) throughout Canada — it is not only in Ottawa, it is everywhere."
She takes cellphone photos of yellow-and-blue signs and flags, including outside shops and bakeries, and sends them to friends in Ukraine on the front line, to show how people across Canada are showing solidarity.
"It is very important for … the people who are out there every day under the shelling to know that the world stands with us," Kovaliv said.
The ambassador is profusely grateful to Canada for its financial and moral support, and said a measure enabling Canada to sell off Russian assets seized under the sanctions regime sets an important international precedent.
Yet, she would like Canada to go further still and move to ban Putin from attending the G20 — including an upcoming heads of government meeting in Bali in November — as well as bar Russians from having visas to leave the country.
The ambassador believes Putin and his military apparatus are not the only ones who must be held accountable for the invasion of Ukraine.
She is critical both of Russians fighting in Ukraine, who she said are pillaging people's houses and committing atrocities, but Russian civilians who keep "silent" about the war.
Russians are enjoying western lifestyles and buying luxury goods abroad, she said, as well as educating their children in London and holidaying in France.
She urged the Russian people to have the courage to speak out against the war.
"These are the Russians who can stop him. It's not only us Ukrainians in the front line who can stop him … but the people who are keeping silent and being afraid."
Russia has launched a deliberate campaign to destroy Ukraine's infrastructure and to disrupt the harvest, including bombing silos and planting mines in fields, she said.
However, high-grade protective equipment provided by Canada has been saving lives, including that of a young mine clearance officer who was propelled into the air after a mine exploded recently.
She blamed Russia for not only driving up the price of grain, by blockading ports, but preventing the export of grain to countries in Africa and the Middle East at risk of starvation.
One note of optimism is the fact that 25 ships carrying 630,000 tonnes of Ukrainian grain and corn have left Black Sea ports since the signing of an international deal with Russia to allow the shipment of grain this summer.
Despite this, there is hard work ahead to bring in the harvest and prepare for the severe Ukrainian winter. Many houses lack electricity or even windows, she said.
"We need to prepare schools and provide protection in the basements where the children can safely shelter where there is the risk of airstrikes and bombardments — this is the new reality."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 23, 2022.
Marie Woolf, The Canadian Press