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Canada extends military training mission to Ukraine for two more years

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OTTAWA – Canada is extending its military training mission to Ukraine for another two years, Canada’s national defense and foreign affairs ministers announced here on March 6.

Operation UNIFIER – through which 200 Canadian soldiers have provided training to their Ukrainian counterparts in such areas as bomb disposal, military policing and medical training at two military sites in western Ukraine – was set to end this month, but will now run until March 31, 2019, with the same number of Canadian troops.

More than 3,200 members of the Ukrainian armed forces have received this training since the mission began in September 2015, according to National Defense Minister Harjit Sajjan, who said that “Canada’s support for Ukraine is unwavering.”

The Canadian Armed Forces operation will transition “over time to support strategic institutional reform of Ukraine’s defense establishment,” the Canadian government said in a release.

“This assistance is crucial to ensure a sovereign, secure and stable Ukraine, and the Ukrainian government is extremely happy to have us,” Minister Sajjan told reporters at a news conference outside the House of Commons as he announced the extension of the military mission.

“During my visit to Ukraine last year, I witnessed firsthand the determination our soldiers brought to this mission. And equally, I witnessed the heart and passion the Ukrainian soldiers demonstrated in their training,” he said.

Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland, who joined Mr. Sajjan in making the announcement, referred to her Ukrainian heritage and paraphrased a line from one of Taras Shevchenko’s poems: “Learn, my brothers. Learn from foreigners and learn your own thing.” She said that Operation UNIFIER “really embodies that.”

When asked whether the recent escalation of fighting between Ukrainian government troops and Russian-backed rebels in eastern Ukraine would affect Canada’s mission, Minister Sajjan said the tactical-level training provided by Canadian forces is “working well,” but “will require more work from higher levels as we move forward.”

Last month, Jill Sinclair, a former assistant deputy minister of national defense, was appointed as Canada’s representative to the Ukrainian Defense Reform Advisory Board, which also includes three retired generals from the United States (John Abizaid), the United Kingdom (Sir Nick Parker) and Lithuania (Jonas Andriskevicius).

They will examine “wider reforms at the higher level,” said Mr. Sajjan. “This is going to take, not just a bottom approach, but…a top-down approach as well. And we’ll always look at making adjustments.”

He explained that by extending UNIFIER, Canada is “sending a very strong message to Russia, but that’s not the only message.”

Canada will also lead a NATO multinational battle group in Latvia, where about 450 Canadian troops are expected to arrive in June to counter Russian aggression and ambitions in Eastern Europe.

“We are sending a strong message of deterrence,” the defense minister said, “that Russia’s actions are not going to be tolerated. But the diplomacy is just as important, that we need to get back to a responsible conversation and dialogue.”

A spokesperson for the Russian embassy in Ottawa, Kirill Kalinin, called the Canadian government’s decision to extend the military mission “counterproductive.” In a statement released to the press, he said that “Canada should exert pressure on the authorities in Kyiv to implement their obligations under the Minsk accords and concentrate on reaching a peaceful solution instead of pursuing military ventures.”

Ukrainian Canadian Congress President Paul Grod welcomed news of the mission’s extension.

“The renewal of Operation UNIFIER demonstrates Canada’s unequivocal commitment to assisting Ukraine as Ukraine defends its sovereignty, territorial integrity and independence from brutal Russian aggression,” he said in a statement. “This training mission is an important part of the overall strategy of Ukraine’s defense reforms and will help Ukraine’s military reduce battlefield casualties.”

Mr. Grod added that the announcement “reaffirms that Ukraine has no closer friend and no more reliable partner than Canada.”

The UCC has also renewed calls for Canada and Ukraine to sign a long-awaited defense cooperation agreement – which Mr. Sajjan said on Monday “is a work in progress” – and for Canada to include Ukraine in its Automatic Firearms Country Control List, which would allow Canadian weapons manufacturers to ship arms to Ukraine.

Jordan Owens, who serves as Defense Minister Sajjan’s press secretary, said that officials with the Canadian and Ukrainian defense departments are working to determine the best time for both countries’ defense ministers to meet and sign the Canada-Ukraine Defense Cooperation Agreement. “This is the first step in moving towards adding Ukraine to the Automatic Firearms Country Control List,” she said in an e-mail to The Ukrainian Weekly.

Former Conservative Cabinet Minister Peter Kent, who now serves as the Official Opposition foreign affairs critic in the House of Commons, criticized Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s Liberal government for “falling short” in providing Ukraine with weaponry given the recent surge in hostilities in eastern Ukraine.

Ukraine’s request to Canada for anti-tank and sniper weaponry, “perhaps just as we’re providing to the Kurds in northern Iraq against ISIS, but certainly defensive assistance in the lethal weapon area is, we believe, essential,” Mr. Kent said in a scrum with reporters on Parliament Hill on March 6.

“Russia has escalated the conflict. Ukraine is simply asking for an ability to hold the line of contact and not to lose even more of [its] territory,” he noted.

Canada’s mission extension does not include the resumption of sharing images from Canada’s Radarsat-2 satellite with the Ukrainian government, something that the previous Conservative government of Canada, in which Mr. Kent served, announced two years ago, but the Trudeau government cancelled last May.

Ms. Owens told the Weekly that following “consideration on how best to address Ukraine’s evolving security assistance needs, it was decided that resources could be redirected to other areas and the supply of satellite imagery ended.”

However, Ukraine’s ambassador to Canada, Andriy Shevchenko, who was present at the Canadian ministers’ announcement of Operation UNIFIER’s extension, reiterated his country’s need for weapons and satellite imagery.

Ukraine has asked for lethal aid since 2014, when Russia annexed Crimea and began supporting “separatist” forces in Ukraine’s Donbas region. But Canada has so far only provided non-lethal military supplies, such as boots, coats, pants and gloves.

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