OTTAWA – One month after the Canadian government announced a two-year extension of its military training mission in Ukraine, Canada formalized its support for Ukraine’s sovereignty and security through a bilateral defense cooperation agreement both countries’ defense ministers signed here on April 3.
“The arrangement will enable us to collaborate closely on issues of mutual security and defense concerns,” Canadian Defense Minister Harjit Sajjan told reporters at the signing ceremony at National Defense headquarters in Ottawa. “This defense cooperation agreement demonstrates just how strongly Canada is committed to Euro-Atlantic security and our unwavering support for Ukraine.”
Ukrainian Defense Minister Stepan Poltorak, whose remarks were translated from Ukrainian, said that the agreement “sends a clear message to Russia that there are many friends of Ukraine in the world, and Canada is one of them – those friends that support the idea that Ukraine has the right to protect its own territorial integrity and has the right to select a proper path for itself.”
Ukrainian Canadian Congress (UCC) President Paul Grod hailed the signing of the Canada-Ukraine Defense Cooperation Agreement as “an important step forward in strengthening Canada and Ukraine’s bilateral security and defense relationship.”
In a statement, he said that, “at a time when Russia’s military aggression against Ukraine continues unabated, this arrangement will help Ukraine’s military better defend their country and continue the reform of Ukraine’s defense institutions.”
The agreement will provide a “formal mechanism to have Canadians working with Ukrainians at a military level,” said Conservative defense critic James Bezan, a Ukrainian Canadian Member of Parliament for the Manitoba federal riding of Selkirk-Interlake-Eastman.
He explained that the bilateral pact would enable Ukrainian soldiers to train with their Canadian counterparts on joint exercises in Canada and facilitate officer exchanges between both countries as part of “an ongoing cooperation needed to bring the Ukrainian military up to NATO standards,” a goal Minister Poltorak said Ukraine would meet by 2020.
However, Mr. Bezan, who served as parliamentary secretary to the federal defense minister in former Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s government told The Ukrainian Weekly that negotiations for the defense-cooperation agreement were “concluded” by the time the Conservatives handed over power, following the 2015 general election, to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s Liberals, “who sat on it.”
When asked about the delay in signing the accord, Mr. Sajjan told reporters: “We just wanted to make sure that we got it right.”
The minister was unavailable for an interview. However his press secretary, Jordan Owens, said that discussions regarding the agreement began under the Harper government, but continued last fall under the Trudeau government. “The delay since then has been finding an opportunity that worked in the two ministers’ schedules,” she said in an email.
In a briefing note to MPs last August, the UCC pressed the need for such an agreement, which it said “would improve interoperability and deepen cooperation between Canada’s and Ukraine’s military” and also called on Ottawa to add Ukraine to the Automatic Firearms Country Control List to allow the export of “certain defensive equipment to Ukraine.”
On the latter, Minister Sajjan told reporters that would be “the next step” and that adding Ukraine to that list would be “worked through” Global Affairs Canada, which is headed by Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland, a Ukrainian Canadian.
Mr. Poltorak, a Ukrainian army general who previously led Ukraine’s National Guard, was diplomatic in pressing his country’s case for lethal aid.
“We understand and respect the decisions of each and every country,” he told reporters, “in terms of whether to provide or not provide us with weapons.” But he also said that Ukraine has asked for international support in the form of equipment, gear and defensive weapons since Russia began military incursions into Ukraine three years ago.
And in an interview with the Canadian Broadcasting Corp., Gen. Poltorak said he hoped the defense cooperation agreement would “serve as the foundation” for a “future dialogue on the possibility of this sort of assistance to Ukraine.”
Mr. Bezan, who with Ms. Freeland is among 13 Canadians banned from traveling to Russia, said that if the Trudeau government doesn’t add Ukraine to the list of countries in which Canadian weapons manufacturers could ship arms to the beleaguered country, Canada should buy the weapons for Ukraine that its armed forces requires.
“This would provide the Ukrainian military with the ability to protect their soldiers and citizens from ongoing Russian aggression,” he said.
When asked why the Harper government didn’t equip Ukraine with the arms it has long requested, Mr. Bezan said the Conservatives looked at the availability of surplus weapons within the Canadian Armed Forces and determined there wasn’t anything “usable” for their Ukrainian counterparts.
He said there was also hope in Ottawa that the Minsk II agreement Russia and Ukraine entered into in 2015 banning the use of heavy weaponry along the frontlines would lead to peace.
“But Russia and its proxies in Donbas have continued to violate the Minsk agreements, as violence has escalated and Russia has gone into a much more offensive position,” said Mr. Bezan. “So I think that now is the time to provide that lethal aid. It is in the best interest of Ukraine to have good sniper rifles and anti-tank missiles.”
He added that the Liberals have not provided Ukraine’s military with any equipment as the Conservatives did in supplying Ukrainian soldiers with such non-lethal supplies as helmets, body armor and night-vision goggles.
“There has been nothing like that under the Trudeau government,” Mr. Bezan said.
That allegation is “incorrect,” said Ms. Owens, who noted that the Canadian Armed Forces helped deliver about $3 million (about $2.2-million U.S.) worth of equipment to Ukraine for explosives disposal in late November 2015, just weeks after the Liberals formed government, and that Canada continues to buy and ship such non-lethal military gear as a mobile field hospital and night-vision goggles.
However, the one issue that the governing Liberals and opposition Conservatives agree on is that Canada’s military training mission to Ukraine, known as Operation UNIFIER, is producing positive results.
Last month, in announcing the operation’s extension until 2019, Mr. Sajjan said that during his visit to Ukraine last year, he “witnessed the heart and passion the Ukrainian soldiers demonstrated in their training.”
Mr. Bezan believes the mission will also nudge Ukraine closer to NATO membership. “The Canadian trainers have helped Ukraine’s troops move closer to operating under NATO standards,” he said.