Canada will expand its military training mission in Ukraine and ship the embattled eastern European country non-lethal equipment to help it face down the threat of Russian invasion, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced today.
The three-year extension and expansion of Operation Unifier was widely expected and was signalled by the Liberal government back in December, when Defence Minister Anita Anand received her mandate letter outlining her goals in the ministry.
Another 60 troops will be dispatched right away to bolster the contingent of 200 soldiers already on the ground and helping to instruct the Ukrainian Armed Forces.
Additional troops could be sent if necessary and the size of the mission contingent could be increased to 400, Trudeau said today following a three-day cabinet retreat.
The Department of National Defence (DND) will provide Ukraine with non-lethal military equipment, including body armour, metal detectors, thermal binoculars, laser range finders, tactical medical bags and surveillance technology.
The Canadian military is tasking its electronic eavesdropping service — the Communications Security Establishment (CSE) — with cooperating on intelligence and cyber security with Ukraine. The increased support will make Ukraine better able to defend itself from a range of threats, the prime minister said.
The federal government estimated the cost of its assistance package, including the mission extension, at $340 million. Separately, the government offered Ukraine another $50 million in humanitarian aid, along with a promise to beef up Canada's diplomatic presence in the country.
The prime minister today defended his government's decision to not send Ukraine lethal weaponry — something other allies have done already.
"The solution to this tension should be diplomatic," said Trudeau.
The training mission "is the best way Canada can help," he added. "It is up to Russia to choose not to invade Ukraine."
WATCH | Personnel and equipment for Ukraine:
The U.S., Britain, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania recently rushed anti-armour missiles and other American-made weapons to Ukraine.
The Biden administration has sent Ukraine $200 million worth of anti-tank weapons and other equipment over the last few days — a special consignment over and above its annual arms shipment.
At home, Canada had been under pressure from the Opposition Conservatives to send Ukraine weapons and to start sharing satellite imagery with Ukraine again — something the government of former prime minister Stephen Harper did following the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014. The satellite image-sharing program was not renewed by the Liberal government during its first term.
Appearing on CBC's Power & Politics, Anand said the question of sharing satellite data is "still under discussion."
WATCH | Expanding the training mission:
New Democrats applauded the mission extension and said they hope it will help "the Ukrainian military to become more democratic and accountable with full respect for international law and human rights."
The shipment of equipment addresses only one of the three requests made of Canada by the Ukrainian government. Kyiv had asked for an extension to the military training mission, "defensive weapons" and additional, pre-emptive sanctions.
The prime minister gave no indication today that his government is planning additional sanctions against Russia.
Trudeau said he spoke with the president of the European Union recently about the need for western democracies to coordinate penalties imposed on Russia in the event it invades Ukraine.
Andrii Bukvych, Ukraine's charge d'affaires to Canada, welcomed the announcement as "timely" and called it a demonstration of Canada's steadfast support for Ukraine's sovereignty and security.
The "extension and expansion of the [Operation] Unifer training mission, providing non-lethal equipment, assistance to strengthen cyber security, intel exchange are extremely important right now," he said.
Both Anand and Foreign Affairs Minister Melanie Joly said in earlier discussions their counterparts were pleased with what Canada offered.
Joly, who has just returned from a whirlwind round of diplomacy in Europe, including a stop in Ukraine, said the No. 1 request of the Ukrainian government was a $120 million loan to buttress its economy. It was something the Liberal government turned around in three days, she said.
The Ukrainian Canadian Congress (UCC), however, expressed its frustration that weapons were not part of the package.
"The extension and expansion of Operation Unifer will help the Ukrainian Armed Forces strengthen Ukraine's defences. This is an important contribution by Canada," said UCC national president Alexandra Chyczij, in a statement Wednesday night.
"However, Ukraine has been at war for eight years and the threat of a further Russian invasion grows every day. It is disappointing that the Canadian government is not yet joining our allies in providing Ukraine with weapons."
The announcement came on the same day that the Biden administration and NATO told Russia there will be no concessions to Moscow's primary demands over Ukraine. The U.S. and NATO offered again to talk to Moscow about other initiatives to reduce tensions.
"We've put these ideas forward because they have the potential – if negotiated in good faith – to enhance our security and that of our allies and partners while also addressing Russia's stated concerns through reciprocal commitments," said U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken.
The written responses were anticipated and echo what senior U.S. and NATO officials have been saying for weeks. There was no immediate response from Russia — but Russian officials have warned that Moscow would quickly take "retaliatory measures" if the U.S. and its allies reject its demands.
Russia's ambassador to Canada, Alex Stepanov, said Canada's extension and expansion of its military mission is unfortunate and will do nothing to resolve the crisis.
"My country's position is that we regret the decision of the Canadian government to extend its armed forces presence in Ukraine and to supply that country more military equipment," Stepanov told Radio Canada.
"I believe that pumping up Kyiv [with] material, and the military expertise, [it] doesn't really help the peaceful resolution of the conflict in Donbas," he added, referring to the region in eastern Ukraine where Russian proxy forces have been waging a seven-year battle with Ukrainian forces.
He said the assistance only "emboldens the Ukrainian government" and "fuels the war."