OTTAWA – Canada could push Russia to support Ukraine’s proposal for a United Nations peacekeeping mission along the Ukrainian-Russian border but should start sending arms to help Ukraine defend itself against Russian-backed rebels in the Donbas region, says James Bezan, the Official Opposition Conservative shadow minister of national defense in the Canadian House of Commons.
“Russia holds veto power in the U.N. Security Council, so the Ukrainian proposal has little chance of succeeding,” said Mr. Bezan, member of Parliament for the Manitoba riding of Selkirk-Interlake-Eastman, who is of Ukrainian descent. Mr. Bezan recently traveled to Ukraine with a delegation from the House Standing Committee on National Defense, of which he is a member.
He explained that, if Canada signs onto the Russian proposal, which would be restricted to protecting only monitors from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) near the battlefield and would involve Russian peacekeepers, which Ukraine has rejected, “we are guaranteeing a frozen conflict and guaranteeing that Ukraine would be forced to give up its sovereignty over the Donbas.”
Mr. Bezan hopes the U.S. will use its U.N. veto power to reject Russia’s proposal.
“Canada needs to put diplomatic pressure on Russia to accept Ukraine’s proposed U.N. peacekeeping mission to allow Ukraine to enforce its sovereignty, and ensure that no heavy military equipment, supplies and troops are going back and forth across the border,” he said in an interview.
During a September 28 teleconference with journalists following his visit to Ukraine, Canadian Defense Minister Harjit Sajjan said that he and his Ukrainian counterpart, Stepan Poltorak, discussed the proposed U.N. peacekeeping mission. But he declined to say whether Canada would participate – or lead, as the Ukrainian Canadian Congress (UCC) has requested – such an operation.
“My view is cautious optimism. Any opportunity that potentially can lead to stability should be looked at,” Mr. Sajjan told The Ukrainian Weekly from Riga, Latvia, where he visited a Canadian-led NATO battlegroup.
“But having said that, we are extremely mindful of the current situation, and Canada remains committed to Ukraine, and we will move forward with the work that we’ve been doing in helping to improve capacity-building,” the minister said.
Since 2015, the Canadian Armed Forces have trained over 5,580 Ukrainian soldiers through Operation UNIFIER, which runs until March 2019 in western Ukraine.
But at its eastern end, the country is still embroiled in an “escalated conflict,” said Mr. Bezan.
He explained that, while he was in Ukraine, OSCE monitors told him that the Minsk protocol, which Ukraine, Russia and the “separatist” eastern Ukrainian regions in Donetsk and Luhansk signed in 2014 to stop the war in the Donbas, is not even close to being implemented.
“The line of contact moves every day, and ceasefire violations happen daily. And it’s not just one or two incidents every day – we’re talking in the hundreds,” said Mr. Bezan. “That raises the question: Does Canada want to put our troops in between Ukraine and Russia in an open gun fight knowing that the Russian military is one of the best in the world?”
He also fears that Canadian peacekeeping troops could spend decades at the Ukrainian-Russian border as they have elsewhere as part of U.N. missions in Syria’s Golan Heights since 1974 and Cyprus, which dates back to 1964.
Last year, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau set aside $450 million (about $360 million U.S.) over three years toward a new Peace and Stabilization Operations Program, which would deploy 600 Canadian soldiers to U.N. peacekeeping operations. But Ottawa has so far not announced any missions under this program which also includes a $7.4 million (about $5.9 million U.S.) three-year initiative with the OSCE to help de-escalate tensions in eastern Ukraine, and negotiate and monitor the implementation of a ceasefire.
However Mr. Bezan is pleased that Canada plans to add Ukraine to the Automatic Firearms Country Control List, a process that began under the previous Conservative government in which he served.
According to Mr. Sajjan, Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland, a Ukrainian Canadian, has signed off on adding Ukraine to the list, which he said should happen soon.
UCC President Paul Grod expects it will occur by month’s end, when Ukrainian Prime Minister Volodymyr Groysman visits Canada. Ukraine would then become the 40th country allowed to receive weapons imported from Canada.
But the Ukrainian military doesn’t only need to buy lethal aid from Canadian arms manufacturers, Mr. Bezan said.
“The Department of National Defense and the Canadian Armed Forces can donate the equipment at any time – it’s just purely political will from the government,” he said.
“However the only weapons the Ukrainians aren’t building themselves now are better anti-tank missiles, which is what they’re looking for. Other than that, they seek partnerships in the military industrial complex,” he noted.
Mr. Bezan said Canadian companies could provide technological support to Ukraine with the military equipment it’s manufacturing, including tanks, firearms and sniper rifles, and added that he hopes the Canadian government would facilitate those partnerships.
When asked whether Canada would arm Ukraine, Mr. Sajjan said that discussions about lethal equipment within the Defense Cooperation Agreement both countries signed in April have not been “just strictly about a shopping list of systems, [but] about building capacity.”
He explained that with “any type of system that you provide, you have to look at what type of capacity is needed to be able to use it as well. So we’re looking at a much more thorough plan of helping the Ukrainian armed forces modernize their command-and-control structure. We want to make sure that anything we provide is about creating an enduring and evolving process for the Ukrainian armed forces so they can have an efficient and effective fighting force.”
Mr. Bezan said one way Canada can help Ukraine’s military achieve that immediately is by restarting a satellite imagery-sharing program that former Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s Conservative government began in 2015, but which the Trudeau Liberals ended last year.
“The Ukrainians need to have those RADARSAT-2 images. Those are critical pieces of intelligence that allows them to see what troops and heavy artillery and military equipment are being moved in and out of the Donbas,” he said.
“It was very narrow-minded and an appeasement move to Russia by the Trudeau government to take away those needed satellite images. That’s the biggest ask the government of Ukraine has and one that our Conservative Party supports wholeheartedly,” he observed.
Added Mr. Bezan: “Then let’s get the Ukrainians the lethal weapons they need to defend themselves and fight off this invasion by Russia and its proxies, and look at how we can continue to do capacity-building that we’re already doing on the military-training side, but on the military industrial complex as well.”