Does Canada's decision to cut off Ukraine from satellite data show a shift in relations?

Carl Meyer
Canada Politics

[Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, right, shakes hands with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau during a signing ceremony in Kyiv on Monday. AP/Efrem Lukatsky]

The Trudeau government has cut off the Ukrainian military from accessing Canadian satellite imagery used for high-resolution surveillance, which one expert says is a sign of a possible shift in Canada-Ukraine relations.

In 2015, the Harper government revealed it was sharing information from Canada’s RADARSAT-2 with the Ukrainian Armed Forces in the fight against Russian-backed rebels, a decision it said it had made in December 2014. 

The satellite, run by MacDonald, Dettwiler and Associates (MDA) in Richmond, B.C., is used by Canada’s government and military for coastal and marine surveillance, and can scan the Earth day or night through any weather, according to the Canadian Space Agency (CSA).

Liberal MP Chrystia Freeland, then in opposition, said in February 2015 that the Liberals supported providing the satellite data to Ukraine. Today, Canada’s foreign affairs department under Liberal Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says the country is no longer doing so.

“As of May 6, 2016, Canada no longer provides satellite products to Ukrainian authorities,“ wrote Rachna Mishra, a spokeswoman for Global Affairs Canada, in an email to Yahoo Canada News.

"The decision was made after carefully considering the utility of this contribution — compared to Canada’s many other forms of assistance to Ukraine.”

MDA corporate communications manager Wendy Keyzer referred Yahoo Canada News back to the government for a response.

An article posted on state news service Ukrinform on June 1 quotes Ukrainian ambassador Andriy Shevchenko as stating that Canada “recently decided to stop providing such images for reasons of budgetary constraints,” and that Ukraine hoped it could “find other collaboration tools.” The Ukrainian embassy wasn’t immediately available for comment.

Ivan Katchanovski, who teaches political studies at the University of Ottawa, said budgetary considerations were unlikely to be the real reason for the decision.

“I think this was a sign of a possible change in the Canadian stance toward Ukraine,” said Katchanovski, who specializes in the politics of Ukraine and Russia.

Trudeau wrapped up a six-day trip to Eastern Europe this week where he announced the signing of a free-trade deal with Ukraine, as well as new contributions to boost Ukraine’s security — but he did not say whether Canada would be extending its military training mission there past the end date of March 31, 2017, despite a request from Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko.

Canada could be following signals from NATO of a shift in policy toward the eastern European country, said Katchanovski. At a recent NATO summit, leaders welcomed a “deeper” relationship with Ukraine but did not include the country in a list of those “that aspire to join the alliance.”

The use of the satellite, which Poroshenko had asked the Harper government for in order to beef up Kyiv’s battle intelligence against Russian-backed separatists, also proved controversial last year. Documents obtained by the Ottawa Citizen showed the military was facing a “critical shortage” in funding access to the satellite imagery.

Paul Calandra, who was parliamentary secretary to Harper at the time, said in an April 2, 2015, statement to Parliament that the decision to share imagery with Ukraine “has had no negative effect on Canada’s ability to use RADARSAT-2 for other purposes, including those supporting the defence and security of Canada.”

Calandra had said the space agency, the Department of National Defence and the military, the foreign affairs department and the office that provides non-partisan support to the prime minister had all participated in discussions about sharing the imagery.

Global Affairs says Canada has committed more than $700 million in support to Ukraine since January 2014, which includes “over $43 million in security and stabilization programming.”