«Everybody in this country and beyond its borders are involved in this war» — Canadian lawyer and soldier in Ukraine's territorial defense Daniel Bilak
Daniel Bilak talked about his service, thoughts on a full-scale Russian invasion, Canada’s role in supporting Ukraine and joining NATO.
This is Ukraine Calling, the English language podcast from Hromadske Radio in Kyiv, Ukraine. I am Andriy Kulykov and my interviewee today is Daniel Bilak, originally from Canada, who has held important positions in Ukraine’s governmental agencies. He is a lawyer of great qualification. He is a person much loved in the expat community in Ukraine’s capital. And for more than a year now, Mr. Bilak has been a soldier in Ukraine’s territorial defense. He joined the force before the full-scale Russian invasion. Apparently, he knew or suspected more than many here. As Daniel says that he speaks five languages and English the best, we’ll talk in English. Although I should say that his Ukrainian is as natural as it can be with the person of his history.
Andriy Kulykov: In one of the interviews you gave last year, you said that now there is total resistance in Ukraine in response to a full-scale invasion by Russia. So I’ll start by asking you to extrapolate that definition.
Daniel Bilak: Look, I’ve been in Ukraine over 30 years. I’ve been in stints in the Ukrainian government, in the private sector, and I’ve seen Ukrainian society evolve over this period of time. And I think that really this full-scale invasion has been the culmination of a consolidation of Ukrainian society. I mean, it’s just been fantastic to watch, and it has been a humbling experience because in a very real sense this is total resistance. Everybody in this country and beyond its borders are involved in this war. You are either on the front or you’re working for the front. And I try to explain to audiences in the west, this isn’t, you know, we are supporting the Ukrainian army. The Ukrainian army is us, and we are the Ukrainian army in a very real sense. I mean, myself, I joined the territorial defense forces just before the start, but at the start of the war. And, you know, I’ve never been in the military. I never held a rifle except to shoot some clay pigeons once in a while, but knew nothing about tactics or bullets or weapons. And there were thousands, if not millions, of people like me.
And when they created the territorial defense forces, they basically were giving us a platform from which we could help defend the country. But it’s not just about the territorial defense forces because they are part of the armed forces of Ukraine. But you have from, you know, babusi in the villages, grandmothers in the villages to students, to professionals, to business people, to housewives, to ordinary citizens. Everybody is either involved in volunteer work, medical assistance, any sort of support, and not just to the army, but to the millions of people who have been displaced, the IDPs — internally displaced persons — building housing, shelter, providing them with food. You know, the outpouring of support and neighbourliness is very profound and humbling to watch. And this is why there is no question in my mind that Ukraine will win this war. I mean, we have to win. We’re facing a war of extermination. We understand what is at stake, you know, the very existence of Ukraine and of Ukrainians. We have an enemy that believes that if you are, don’t believe you are Russian, you are a Nazi. And if you’re a Nazi, you are a Ukrainian. And therefore, Nazis and Ukrainians are open season for extermination. It’s very simple math.
You may also read or listen on Hromadske Radio: «Everything I see now is inspiration» — Melinda Simmons
And so, notwithstanding the horrific suffering that our people have endured, I read a recent survey that said 89% of Ukrainians are prepared to fight to the very end, even if Putin uses nuclear weapons in Ukraine. So when I hear in the West about the suffering, we have to stop it, etc., I don’t know who they’re talking to because we’re prepared to keep going. Maybe their lattes are a little more expensive these days and people are suffering higher energy costs etc., but we are fighting to protect their way of life. And I think that’s started to sink in.
«We had no illusions about any sort of brotherly relations between Ukrainians and Russians»
Andriy Kulykov: Daniel Bilak and Ukraine Calling on Hromadske radio from Kyiv, you are among those people who have never had any doubt that Russia would eventually attack. And I was among them also, but you joined the territorial defense or the armed forces a month before the attack happened. And I, even on the eve of the invasion, when asked by a BBC interviewer when Russia would attack, I said, this autumn, because I thought that after the United States withdrew from Afghanistan, Russia would wait for the US to get bogged down in another regional conflict. Why, to your mind, Russia had not waited?
Daniel Bilak: It’s an interesting question. I mean, I grew up in Canada, in a Ukrainian family. So we had no illusions about any sort of brotherly relations between Ukrainians and Russians. I remember when I came to Ukraine in 1991 first, and I heard this brotherly relations. I reminded people that Abel also had a brother, and we all know how that ended up. I remember when Ukraine obtained its independence, my father said to me, it’s a great day, but they will never give up. They will never let us go. He’s going to come back, and he’s going to try to take us. And that stayed with me. It’s like a monkey on your back during all the years I’ve been in Ukraine and in some small way trying to contribute to the development and building a nation here. But it was always at the back of my mind. And when the writing was on the wall after Crimea and the Donbas in 2014, where all he got was a slap on the wrist.
Because you don’t have to, I mean, the West, and I don’t want to be ungrateful or uncharitable because without the support of our Western allies, we wouldn’t be where we are today. But to a very real extent, we are paying the price as Ukrainians for all of the enabling that they did for Putin over the years, especially many of the European nations with their cognitive dissonance around buying gas and hydrocarbons and doing business. I mean, we see today, Raiffeissen Bank paid $500 million in taxes last year to the state last year during the war to the state budget of Russia. I mean, there are huge amounts of money. You see the difficulties that consumer products, companies and distributors like «Metro» and «Auchan» have in extracting themselves, because this would be a huge hit to their profits. And so, this had huge implications for us, because when I was in the Ukrainian government, I was head of Ukraine Invest and the advisor to Prime Minister Groysman for three years, trying to attract foreign investors into Ukraine. It was very difficult because officially, even the EU was telling us, well, you have problems with corruption, problems with corruption. I was saying, we’ve made more institutional changes and created a robust anti-corruption architecture than any other country in the world in a very short period of time. Yeah, but, so the glass is always half empty, right? And it was very convenient for them because it meant that they didn’t have to deal with our European integration aspirations in a serious way and continue to do business with Russia.
And when Russia invaded Crimea, or annexed Crimea and invaded the Donbas, for me, the writing was on the wall. You don’t have to be a PhD in history to understand that, you know, Russia is not a nation. It’s a colonial, aggressive empire, and it will always continue to expand because this is just what they do. And they have nothing to offer their citizens except despair, destruction, and death. And that’s all they offer anybody else. So they need an enemy, they need to keep moving. And Putin is always looking for weakness. The West showed that it was weak in his mind. And so he doubled down. And when he started his exercises on our borders in spring of 2021, and then left the equipment, all of the armor and everything on our border, I said, it’s going to happen. And then when they reanimated the exercises in October, I realized, I said within the next six months it’s going to happen. I was convinced.
«Ukrainians played a very fundamental role in the unification of Canada»
Andriy Kulykov: Daniel Bilak in Ukraine Calling on Hromadske Radio. This is an English language podcast. And I noticed then that you said «we» in at least two cases, meaning Ukrainians, and «we» at least one case, meaning the West. How important for you is being both part of the Western community? And you were one of the most noticeable members of the expat community in Kyiv, at least, and being a Ukrainian at the same time. You touched upon this, but please extrapolate.
Daniel Bilak: It’s not actually an identity crisis. It’s actually, you know, we live in an age where you can have multiple identities. You can be a French citizen, an EU citizen, and a feel very close to your region. For Canadians, actually, as Canadians of Ukrainian descent, which is what I am, my parents and ancestors came from Ukraine, It’s actually quite simple because Ukrainians played such a vital role in the development of Canada. So the Canadian history is actually part of Ukrainian history. And vice versa. It’s actually part of the history that Ukrainians in Ukraine don’t know a lot about. And I think it’s the job of the Government of Canada especially, to educate them, because it’s a very important part of how Western Canada was developed and how the country was united. Ukrainians played a very fundamental role.
You may also read or listen on Hromadske Radio: Mozart, the Art of War
So, you know, I grew up with this, very proud of my Ukrainian heritage, obviously proud to be a Canadian. I grew up in a NATO country. I grew up with the values of freedom and the importance of freedom. But I also grew up with people who oftentimes I think felt that that freedom is something that they’re entitled to. And that freedom is not something that you really need to worry about because somehow the government guarantees it or the American nuclear umbrella guarantees it. But having been brought up in a Ukrainian family, we also knew about how vulnerable and fragile that freedom is. And my father always taught me that freedom is the most fragile commodity and valuable commodity that you have because without freedom you have nothing else. Freedom is all about choice. And I think that that is actually one of the great lessons that Ukrainians have taught the West. It’s given the West back its mojo, if you like. I probably in this war identify much more as a Ukrainian than I do as a Canadian because of where I am and what I’m doing and serving in the military. And sometimes having to actually soothe the Canadian government over its decision to give Germany and Russia back the gas turbines for Nord Stream 1. So I’m all in on this on the Ukrainian side. But it’s always meant, Andriy, that I’m sort of a bridge. And I’ve always played this role as a bridge between two worlds to try to bring them closer together, if you like.
Andriy Kulykov: Are you a bridge over very troubled waters or not?
Daniel Bilak: Well, we’re a bridge over very troubled waters these days, but I think that bridge is narrowing, and I think the traffic over that bridge is now full of armour, which is what we really wanted for a long, long time. But one of the reasons I stayed, I made my decision a long time ago that I was going to live here, my family is here, my younger children live here, and I’m one of the reasons that I decided that I did stay was because I thought I could play this role of explaining to the West what was happening here, as well as showing my neighbours in my community, etc., that they don’t need to run. We’re all in this together, type of thing. And I don’t want to over exaggerate the importance of that, but I wasn’t doing it for altruistic reasons. I was doing it because I deeply felt a commitment to this country. And as I tell people, I fiercely love this country. I love its people. I love its language and its culture. And if we don’t defend it, if everybody leaves, then there’s nobody going to be left to defend it. And we will have the kind of tyranny and fascist genocide that we’ve seen Russia impose on our people in the occupied territories. So this issue of we, I sometimes slip into it back and forth and people get confused about who I’m talking about and which hat I’m wearing in the same sentence. So I try to distinguish between «we» and «you». I never say «you» to the Ukrainians. I say «you» to the people from the West.
«Canadians can be by and large very proud of its position and support to Ukraine in this war»
Andriy Kulykov: All right. Just a bit about Canada. I have a friend in Canada whom we talk with each other quite often, and she’s always unsatisfied with what the Canadian government does to help Ukraine. From my point of view, being a recipient of this aid indirectly, of course, I say no, no, no, it’s okay. But she says always we should do more and all this kind of stuff. What’s your feeling?
Daniel Bilak: Yeah, my feeling is I agree with you, Andriy, but I like the fact that people are pressuring their governments to always do more. You can’t sit back on your laurels. I mean, look, criticizing government is a national sport in Canada. Not unlike in Ukraine. Ukrainians don’t like government in general. And I think that’s a very healthy attitude that certainly distinguishes us from Russians. They don’t like their government either, but they can’t live without their Tsar. Whereas we don’t want the Tsar, we don’t even want a Hetman, we just want to be left alone to do what we do. I think I’m very, to be honest with you, I’m very pleased and satisfied with what the Canadian government has done. It’s always been a leader in Ukraine. It’s one of the few countries where Canada, as at best the middle power, has punched above its weight, especially during the period of time during the Trump administration where we didn’t have an ambassador from the US here. And it really fell onto the shoulders of my good friend and university classmate, Roman Washchuk, who is Canada’s ambassador at the time. He was here five years. He was the dean of ambassadors. And he really, with Chrystia Freeland, we were very lucky to have her inside the government. These are people who profoundly understand, not just the fact they speak Ukrainian, went to Ukrainian school, but profoundly understand this region, this country, and what’s at stake for Canada. Canada has delivered what it can. It’s a country of minimal resources and militarily. It has provided money, but it has also provided huge political support and rallied other countries. We do punch above as Canadians. I’ll use the «we» here. We do punch above our weight. And I’m very proud of that as a Canadian citizen. So, you know, at the same time, don’t stop. I think there’s always more that can be done.
Even though Canada does not have a lot of tanks, it was made sure that it was the first country to deliver the tanks it had, as a symbolic gesture, but this is very important, you break the ice. Actually, there’s been some, not a lot of the discussion around it, but Canada is a leader in electronic warfare systems. And my understanding is that a lot of that has come here, as well as armoured vehicles called the Senator, which are produced in Toronto, where a lot of Ukrainians from Ukraine who have come to Canada are now working to build these things. And our boys on the front lines really like these things. So, you know, I think Canada is a very important member of the alliance that is helping Ukraine.
And the government is trying to maintain a visibility over its role. You know, the fact that not all Canadians are happy, I think some of that reflects domestic unhappiness, if you like, or concerns, which always gets translated into concerns about other things. But I, foreign policy-wise, but I think that the Canadians and the Canadian government can be by and large very proud of its position and support to Ukraine in this war.
«My view is that we will absolutely be in NATO»
Andriy Kulykov: About the alliance then, and it’s mostly about the NATO alliance. We keep hearing from the NATO that yes, Ukraine has a chance to join the NATO, but only after Ukraine wins this war. Yes, with NATO’s help, with NATO’s support, but only after. And this is not yet even guaranteed because they talk of negotiations and all this kind of stuff. Does this seem a bit, to put it mildly, illogical? Because with all our belief in the imminent victory of Ukraine, the odds are not all in our favour.
Daniel Bilak: I think that we need to maybe take a step back and put this in perspective. Given where we were a year ago and where we are today, we are much further along the road to NATO membership than we could ever, ever, have anticipated and hoped for. We have to understand the alliance that is assisting us is not a NATO alliance, it’s made up of NATO countries but NATO as an alliance has been very careful not to take a position beyond declarations of support for Ukraine so that it is not perceived, from their perspective, as NATO fighting – this is now justification for the war — this that they are fighting NATO advancements. So, frankly, I don’t think it makes any difference, but this is the way NATO countries are able to maintain their solidarity. And if we were subject to NATO decisions, we would have a problem, especially perhaps with Hungary and maybe Turkey, sometimes, but Hungary for sure, and you know, there are going to have to be some profound questions about how decisions are taken in the EU and in NATO after the behaviour of Mr. Orbán’s government.
But anyway, the, I think that, look. My view is that we will absolutely be in NATO. For one, we are now recognized as being the «eastern shield» of NATO. I mean, one of the reasons why the neighbours are giving us all of their tanks — or a large part of their tank park and infantry-fighting vehicles, etcetera, they understand that having them in their countries isn’t going to protect them. The real their protection is taking place right now in Ukraine and my sense is that there is finally an understanding that Russia needs to be defeated in Ukraine for there to be peace in Europe. And I think that we will have an absolutely moral and ethical and security and national security and Euro-Atlantic security argument for joining NATO. We have a lot of support within NATO now, much more than we had. People see how we fight, people see that we can use weapons responsibly. Not only that, we are the only country that knows how to use most of NATO’s weapons systems interchangeably; interoperability, it’s called. Most — a lot of these countries don’t know how to do that. And we have actually linked all of these disparate systems, which is insane. Nobody buys fifteen different systems in their military, but we didn’t have any choice. So, you know, usually you buy one or two and you focus on those and you train around those. We’ve been forced to have our boys training on systems that many NATO countries could not operate, and we make them work together on the battlefield. This is unique! We are going to be doing training of NATO forces after this war. [Chuckles.] Not the other way around. I think that there is a momentum, and I think there will be a momentum. I understand why. I don’t like it, I would love to have at Vilnius, an offer for Ukraine to join NATO. I don’t think it will happen, but I think that much more important is for NATO to say, «All countries need to double-down on support for Ukraine to win this war». That really has to be our main focus right now, and the faster we win this war, the faster we can start negotiations about NATO. We’ve put our application in, NATO has taken a decision still in 2008 that we have a right to join. So, I don’t see that there are — it’s not like they’re going to say, «Well, if we bring Ukraine into NATO, Russia’s going to invade». We’ve gotten over that. So, you know, I think that this — there will be a discussion around Ukraine’s membership, joining NATO will be very, very different than what it would have been a year ago.
«I’ve worked in the Ukrainian government four times but nothing has been as satisfying for me as handing body armour to a civilian»
Andriy Kulykov: It took us some time to arrange for this interview because obviously, I presume that Mr. Bilak as a military personnel does not fully have the control of his time. So this is my next question. Without breaching any military secrets, what do you do as a territorial defence fighter, or a territorial defence officer? By the way, what’s your rank?
Daniel Bilak: I am just a soldier. I have found that lawyers actually make fairly tentative soldiers because we over-analyze risk, I think. At least I do. So I am very happy to follow my neighbours who are, you know, small businessmen, engineers, mechanics, technical people who analyze things much more linearly and take quick decisions. I just do what I’m told. My role in our defence unit in our community — we train. We train every week. We are increasingly understand that given the allocation of our forces to the upcoming counteroffensive and to the defence of Bakhmut, the territorial defence forces, including especially, the voluntary formation of a territorial community, voluntary territorial units that are part of the regional battalions of the territorial defence forces, have to step up to take more of a mainline role in the defence especially since we’re not that far from the Belarus and Russian borders. And so that is an increasingly important role that we will play, that we’re playing now in terms of ensuring that if anything changes quickly that would necessitate rapid response to a threat from the north, that we are ready to undertake that.
You may also read or listen on Hromadske Radio: «We don’t have any way of forcing states to do anything, that is the reality of it» — spokesperson for the ICRC
You know, it’s pretty intense training actually. I’m pretty exhausted at the end of it. I’m almost 63 years old so I have to try to keep up with all these folks. You know, you get to know your neighbours really well, a very high premium on getting along since everybody’s armed, so we all do. But one of my roles as well in the Territorial Defence Forces is to — I’m an advisor to the head of the military administration in our region, and so I try to coordinate obtaining things that we need in our battalion and in our voluntary unit for procurement issues. Non-lethal, of course. You know, night vision monoculars. Early on in the war it was body armour and helmets. I’ve worked in the Ukrainian government four times as an advisor on policies and reforms and things like that but nothing has been as satisfying for me as handing body armour and a helmet to a neighbour or to another civilian and just seeing the sheer look of relief on his face when he understands that, «Well, maybe I won’t die in the first volley». You know, and it was really a profound experience for me.
So, we’ve been doing this. Our unit in our community has just received permission to shoot down drones, go out and shoot down drones if their coming over, because they fly over our community before they come into Kyiv and so I’ve been helping our unit get the right equipment- projectors, night vision, thermals, monoculars, that kind of stuff, so that we can identify and shoot anything try to shoot anything down that we see. I enjoy it. You feel like you’re doing something that is valuable for the effort, that you’re actually a part of the military effort, that there is value to it. You know, I remember when the attack, or the siege of Kyiv took place, we were so raw at that time, I mean none of us had had any training, and we went groups of us were going up to assist other territorial defence forces and the army. The distinction between all of these different branches of the military disintegrated very, very quickly in the heat of the battle. And we weren’t frontline troops but we were assisting with the logistics and ferrying troops and munitions and logistics. We were helping displaced persons, I mean, we had a huge influx of people coming from the East into our region. It was a huge effort just to keep everything, you know, going. And that’s where this whole you could actually see, it wasn’t theory of total resistance. You could see, you could feel it coalescing. You could feel the glue coming together as people were bound together in common purpose.
«Vse bude Ukrayina»
Andriy Kulykov: So we have come back to the concept of total resistance in this or that way. And my probably last question to Daniel Bilak is: You said that you watched the changes happening in Ukraine. I say you were an important part of those changes, both as a specialist, as a lawyer, and as a person who is capable of summoning support around yourself and around your causes. Now that you are a territorial defence fighter, are you still involved in consulting the government? You mentioned one case that gives me ground to believe that you are, but still. Who is replacing you in your other very important functions? Or there’s no replacement for Dan Bilak?
Daniel Bilak: Well, my father has a great saying that, you know, the cemeteries of the world are filled with indispensable people. You know, I’ve been in government, Ukrainian government, a number of times and even as a senior member you may have a lot of influence with a minister or Prime Minister one day, and the next day, you have no influence on anything because they’re out of office and somebody else has replaced them. So, you know, I think that the faster that people accept that, some people have a very difficult time accepting that, because they have that feeling of power that they had. I never really felt that, I always realized that whatever time I spent in the government was for a finite objectives, as quickly and as efficiently as possible. Especially given how in the past Ukrainian governments rotated. There wasn’t a lot of time. I left Ukraine Invest, and my positions as a government appointee to the supervisory boards of «Ukrzaliznytsia», the state railway, and «Oshchadbank», when the government changed, and that was normal and that was appropriate. I was very happy that Ukraine Invest stayed as an institution. You know, very capable, it stayed under the Prime Minister, because it was very important to me that this agency have cross-government influence because it’s the only way that you can really help investors, whether they’re existing investors or new investors.
I’m still, i’m the head of the law firm I work for now, Kinstellar, it’s an international firm based in the region that was formerly the CEE practice of the big London firm Linklaters, so I’m very happy to be part of that, and I’m running the Ukraine office, the Ukraine practice. So we’ve had challenges this year to restructure and get us into war-footing, war-resilient-footing, as it were. But at the same time, we’re now working at preparing for the reconstruction. The reason unfortunately that it took us a while to get together, Andrej, was that I’ve been travelling a fair bit, I still do a lot of speaking engagements abroad as well as media engagements both virtually and in person. You need to get that message out about what’s happening because you need to reassure. There’s a lot of interest, there’s much more interest in Ukraine now than there ever has been. And I have something to compare with because when I was at Ukraine Invest I felt like I was pushing water uphill with my nose with all the narratives, many of them false, as a mentioned before, about Ukraine and how corrupt it was and how you couldn’t do business here, etcetera, etcetera. But now, everybody understands that there will be a huge reconstruction effort and people want to be a part of it and that’s very exciting, and I think that that’s a great opportunity. And interestingly enough, one of the main opportunities we have is in the defence and defence-technology sectors. For the first time, I think that we will see breaking the monopoly of Ukroboronprom, the Ukraine defence industry’s state conglomerate, break its grip on this area and to invite in major defence manufacturers to build in Ukraine. And frankly, coming back to your NATO question, that will advance our cause in joining NATO more than, I think, even any diplomatic efforts because when we talk about manufacturing, even things like explosives and munitions and ammunition, let alone tanks and infantry-fighting vehicles and armoured personnel carriers, this is stuff that’s going to go to NATO countries. It’s just not going to be just for us. It’s for export as well, and those you know, when I was at Ukraine Invest, one of the things that really tied us in to already to the European supply chain was automobiles. Thirty percent of everything that’s in a car made in Germany came from Ukraine. And so those kinds of linkages and with the EU, is absolutely crucial to building these to bolting us into both the European economic as well as security architecture. And that, you know, I think, unless Ukrainian’s snatch defeat from the jaws of victory, which I’ve seen before, I think that everything is going to be fine. Vse bude Ukrayina.
Andriy Kulykov: Thank you very much, Mr. Dan Bilak. The three Ukrainian words he said at the end of his final message mean, «Everything will be Ukraine», a popular phrase here with various meanings for various people, but inevitably linking the notions of Ukraine and «good». This was Ukraine Calling, the English-language podcast from Hromadske Radio in Kyiv, Ukraine. And you can find more English-language podcasts and views on hromadske.radio.
Transcribed by Caitilín O’Hare and Leah Wagner
This podcast is produced within the project «EU Emergency Support 4 Civil Society», implemented by ISAR Ednannia with the financial support of the European Union. Its contents are the sole responsibility of Hromadske radio and do not necessarily reflect the views of the European Union.