What you need to know about Canada‘s mission in Ukraine


[Despite a personal request from Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko to extend the military training operation past its end-date of March 31, 2017, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was non-committal. CANADIAN PRESS VIDEOS]

In April 2015, four months before he would call an election, then-prime minister Stephen Harper announced he would be sending hundreds of Canadian troops to Ukraine to train its military, defiantly declaring that Canada would “never recognize the illegal Russian occupation.”

It was the next step of non-lethal Canadian military support to Ukraine in the wake of Kyiv’s war with pro-Russian rebels. Canada’s support had already been ramped up for months, with deliveries of all sorts from clothing to radios, night-vision goggles, medical kits, helmets and sleeping bags.

Fast-forward to today: Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who is wrapping up his six-day trip in Eastern Europe, is promising to deploy more Canadian conflict monitors to Ukraine, more humanitarian assistance, and deploy Canadian police. There may also be a defence co-operation agreement with Ukraine to export weapons.

But what about extending the military training? Trudeau won’t say.

Despite a personal request from Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko to extend the operation past its end-date of March 31, 2017, Trudeau was non-committal. He said Canada would “stand with our NATO partners, and push on, as you’ve seen, our friends and partners to continue to be steadfast in support of Ukraine.“

As for Russia, Trudeau used milder terms, suggesting Moscow has “not been a positive partner” on a ceasefire deal. Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan himself has said the long-term goal is to re-establish dialogue with Russia, in the context of a new Canadian military deployment to Eastern Europe.

Canadians may not know it, but throughout the election campaign last fall, and during the nascent first few months of the Trudeau government this spring, Canada has been rotating roughly 200 military trainers through western areas in Ukraine.

The trainers work alongside British and United States counterparts in teaching Ukrainian soldiers how to shoot, move and communicate. The first class of Ukrainian military personnel trained by the Canadian Armed Forces graduated in September, the military says, and other groups have continued to do so through April.

As part of his visit to Ukraine, Trudeau went to the training operation, shaking hands with the troops, and checking out a demonstration of an assault on a building, using binoculars to view the exercise with his son Xavier.

In line with NATO thinking

If the government decides not to extend its operation in Ukraine, it would be in line with NATO thinking, said Ivan Katchanovski, who teaches political studies at the University of Ottawa and specializes in the politics of Ukraine and Russia.

Saying he considered Trudeau’s avoidance of the question to be “an important sign of the policy of the new government,” he said it was also a sign Canada was following signals from NATO that strengthening its own forces in Eastern Europe makes more sense to counter potential Russian aggression.

“For NATO basically, the conflict in Ukraine is just a conflict with Russia,” Katchanovski said. “It’s a civil war, an internal conflict but with Russian military intervention on the part of the separatists.”

The war in Ukraine became a threat to territorial integrity, as was seen with Russia’s disputed “annexation” of Crimea, but not a direct threat to NATO itself, which doesn’t count Ukraine as a member, Katchanovski said.

At a NATO summit in Warsaw that Trudeau attended, NATO leaders agreed to an assistance package to Ukraine and welcomed a “deeper” NATO-Ukraine relationship.

But notably, they did not include Ukraine in a list of countries “that aspire to join the alliance.”

Getting more involved in Ukraine’s conflict, said Katchanovski, would put NATO in a dangerous position, “so instead they went with another option, which is to put forces in other countries.”

While Canada has provided military trainers, it has, up until now, refused to provide major weapons to Ukraine, instead providing non-lethal equipment. That could change, however, if Canada finalizes the defence co-operation agreement.