By: ROBERT FIFE AND MARK MACKINNON, The Globe and Mail
Canada is set to renew a military mission training Ukrainian troops to confront Russia-backed separatists in the east of Ukraine, despite concerns in Kiev over delays in announcing the extension of the program.
The Trudeau cabinet has not yet announced the extension of the two-year-old non-combat mission, dubbed Operation Unifier, which expires on March 31. The silence has sparked worries in Kiev, where the Ukrainian government is anxious for Western reassurance following the election of U.S. President Donald Trump, who has expressed interest in striking some kind of bargain with Russian President Vladimir Putin that could include lowering U.S. sanctions imposed over Moscow’s role in Ukraine.
“The longer it takes to [extend] the mission, the more our concern is rising,” Ukraine’s deputy foreign minister, Vadym Prystaiko, told The Globe and Mail in an interview at his office in Kiev.
But a senior Canadian government official said Ukraine didn’t need to worry about the future of Operation Unifier, which has seen a rotating contingent of 200 Canadian troops train more than 3,100 Ukrainian soldiers since arriving in the country two years ago.
“Canada understands that Ukraine, and everybody who is a stakeholder and supporter, really wants mission renewal,” the senior official said. “There is nothing unique about going through a mission renewal process and there is absolutely nothing unique about how this one is being done. It is a routine renewal from a government that has been making positive signs.”
Mr. Prystaiko said Ukraine was broadly concerned by the Liberal government’s efforts to rebuild relations between Ottawa and Moscow, which were in a deep freeze under former Conservative prime minister Stephen Harper, who famously told Mr. Putin to his face that he needed to “get out of Ukraine.”
The efforts of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government to restart contacts with Russia via forums such as the Arctic Council have rung alarm bells in Kiev, which is concerned that Canada’s previously unwavering support for Ukraine may be weakening.
“Each and every thing – even if it’s not connected [to the war in Ukraine] – will be used by Russia back home to say, ‘Look, these bloody Westerners, they realize they were wrong, they are looking for ways to reconnect with us,’” Mr. Prystaiko said.
But the senior Canadian government official noted that as recently as Friday, Chief of the Defence Staff General Jonathan Vance reiterated Canada’s support for Ukraine at a conference in Ottawa. Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan has also repeatedly expressed Canada’s support for Ukraine, as has Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland.
Ms. Freeland, in particular, is seen in Kiev and Moscow as a staunch backer of Ukraine, having opposed many of her predecessor Stéphane Dion’s efforts to reach out to Russia during his 14-month stint as foreign minister. Ms. Freeland is among 13 Canadians who are barred from entering Russia under sanctions imposed by Moscow in retaliation for Canada’s own measures targeting Russian and Ukrainian politicians over the annexation of Crimea and the war in Ukraine’s Donbass.
Canada, Britain and the United States have had military trainers in Ukraine since the summer of 2015, arriving one year after Moscow – furious over a pro-Western revolution in Kiev – annexed the Crimean Peninsula and helped stir up a separatist insurgency in Ukraine’s Donetsk and Lugansk regions.
More than 10,000 people have been killed in three years of fighting, which has spiked again in recent weeks after a relative lull during the second half of 2016. Alexander Hug, deputy head of a monitoring mission deployed by the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, told The Globe and Mail that the situation around the front line is currently “very unstable” and that a serious escalation is possible.
While Russia has helped the separatists build a formidable army – the self-declared “people’s republics” of Donetsk and Lugansk are estimated to possess some 700 tanks, more than the combined German, French and Italian armies – Ukraine has been reliant on Western military training and other non-lethal aid to help it combat a foe that at times has had the support of regular Russian soldiers.
In addition to basic infantry tactics, the Canadian troops taking part in Operation Unifier have given crash courses to Ukrainian soldiers in subjects ranging from combat first aid to the handling and disposal of explosives.
The training is done at a former Soviet military base in the western Ukrainian town of Yavoriv, some 1,200 kilometres from the front line. The current rotation of Canadian troops are drawn primarily from the 3rd Canadian Division, while 200 members of the 1st Battalion of Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry are currently training in Edmonton for an expected March 1 deployment.
Britain announced in January that it would renew its own training mission in Ukraine. U.S. military trainers are committed until 2020.
The recent surge in fighting around Donetsk and Lugansk comes amid confusion about the depth of U.S. political support for Ukraine under the new Trump administration.
Russia, meanwhile, hasn’t wavered in its backing of the separatists. Mr. Putin announced on Saturday that his government would begin recognizing passports and other documents issued by the Donetsk and Lugansk “people’s republics.”
The move was condemned as “alarming” by the U.S. Embassy in Kiev, but the Ukrainian government is worried by the lack of public support from Mr. Trump, who has repeatedly said he wants to see a better relationship between Washington and Moscow. The Kremlin, in turn, has been forced to repeatedly deny accusations it aided Mr. Trump’s run to the White House by hacking e-mail accounts and spreading disinformation.