December 7, 2018

Canadian government non-committal on arming Ukraine as tensions escalate between Kyiv and Moscow



Canadian Minister of National Defense Harjit Sajjan with Ukrainian Minister of Foreign Affiars Pavlo Klimkin.

OTTAWA – While Ukraine negotiates with the United States about acquiring more American weaponry in its ongoing war against Russian-backed troops in Ukraine’s Donbas region, Canada’s conversation with Ukraine has “advanced” beyond discussions about arms, according to Canadian National Defense Minister Harjit Sajjan.

“It’s not about equipment, it’s about appropriate capacity-building,” he told The Ukrainian Weekly. 

Mr. Sajjan said as much last year, months after Canada and Ukraine signed a Defense Cooperation Arrangement.

During a conference call with Canadian journalists from Riga, Latvia, where the minister visited a Canadian-led NATO battlegroup, Mr. Sajjan told The Ukrainian Weekly that Canada’s focus was on “helping the Ukrainian Armed Forces modernize their command-and-control structure” and ensuring 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.”

A year later, that has not changed much.

Canada’s defense minister explained that the goal is to help train Ukrainian soldiers on using specialized military equipment “effectively” and to assist them with eventually expanding the size of their units from battalion level, which normally consists of between 500 and 800 soldiers, to that of a brigade with 1,500-plus people in uniform.

The idea, he said, is to “modernize the Ukrainian Armed Forces” to fit within the model used in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), which Ukraine aspires to join.

“We need to start talking about institution-building as well,” said Mr. Sajjan. “That’s the long-term legacy that’s needed in Ukraine.”

“We obviously have a lot of challenges with what Russia is doing, but we need to continue doing this,” he noted.

The defense minister added that Canada is waiting for Ukraine to “come up with a comprehensive plan that we can move forward on.”

Former Ukrainian army general Stepan Poltorak’s decision to retire from the military in October and remain as Ukraine’s 14th defense minister as a civilian is a “good sign,” according to Minister Sajjan. “But more work needs to be done.”

Since September 2015, members of the Canadian Armed Forces have worked with more than 10,100 Ukrainian soldiers in 219 training courses ranging from military engineering and explosive-device disposal to casualty evacuation and combat first-aid as part of Operation UNIFIER. About 200 Canadian soldiers have been deployed every six months to several sites across western and central Ukraine as part of the Canadian mission, which is scheduled to end in March.

When asked whether his government would renew UNIFIER beyond next year’s deadline, Mr. Sajjan said only that Canada’s “support to Ukraine is unwavering.”

Escalating tensions

That could soon be tested as tensions between Ukraine and Russia escalated on November 25. 

Ukraine’s Navy reported that Russia’s Coast Guard opened fire on and seized three of its vessels, and captured 23 Ukrainian crew members, injuring at least three following a standoff in the Black Sea near the Crimean peninsula that Moscow annexed from Ukraine four years ago. The Ukrainian vessels were attempting to enter the Sea of Azov, which Ukraine and Russia technically share under a 2003 agreement, via the Kerch Strait.

“We consider such aggressive actions as a violation of the norms of the [United Nations] Charter and the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea,” Ukraine’s Foreign Affairs Ministry said in a November 26 statement. “Ukraine will take all appropriate measures to ensure [a] diplomatic and legal response.”

Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland also issued a statement on November 26, in which she said that “Canada strongly condemns Russia’s actions against Ukraine in the Sea of Azov and Kerch Strait” and called on Russia “to immediately de-escalate, release the captured crew and vessels and not impede passage through the Kerch Strait.”

She said she spoke to Ukrainian Foreign Affairs Minister Pavlo Klimkin on November 25 “and assured him of Canada’s unwavering support for Ukraine’s sovereignty.”

“Canada is also in contact with its G-7 and NATO allies on this matter,” said Ms. Freeland. 

“The government of Canada is unequivocal in its support for Ukraine and in its condemnation of Russia’s illegal invasion and annexation of Crimea. Canada will always be a steadfast partner of the people of Ukraine, and we will continue to work with our allies to hold Russia to account for its unacceptable behavior,” Minister Freeland underscored.

At the Halifax conference

During a trip to Canada in mid-November, Minister Klimkin told Global News that Russia is attempting to “squeeze out real Ukrainians” from Crimea and that Ukraine would return the peninsula to its control.

While in Canada, Mr. Klimkin met with Mr. Sajjan on the margins of an international security forum held on November 16-18 in Halifax, Nova Scotia. The Canadian defense minister hosted the annual foreign affairs and defense conference that included 300 representatives of government, military, think tanks, business and media from over 70 countries.

Ukrainian Canadian Conservative Member of Parliament James Bezan had a huddle in Halifax with Minister Klimkin too, and said in an interview that Ukraine’s requests for further Canadian military support are considerable. 

“They want Operation UNIFIER extended, not just by one year but five years,” said Mr. Bezan, who serves as the Official Opposition Conservatives’ shadow minister of national defense, and added that Ukraine would also like the mission to be increased in “size and scope.” 

“Ukraine has been asking Canada to advocate for a peacekeeping mission for Ukraine to get control of Donbas, and we should champion that request,” he said. 

The opposition Tories have also called for a Canadian-led U.N. peacekeeping mission in eastern Ukraine.

Mr. Bezan told The Ukrainian Weekly that Ukraine also wants weapons.

“Even though Canada is delivering some sniper rifles, they are not provided by the government of Canada and are being bought by the Ukrainian Armed Forces,” said Mr. Bezan, who represents the federal riding of Selkirk-Interlake-Eastman (Manitoba) in the House of Commons.

This summer, PGW Defense Technologies Inc., an arms company based in Manitoba’s capital city, Winnipeg, signed a deal with the Ukrainian military to provide it with LRT-3 .50-calibre sniper rifles. Global Affairs Canada, which is headed by Minister Freeland, approved the deal, worth $1 million (about $756 million U.S.), in August, according to Mr. Bezan’s office.

“The firearms come equipped with suppressors to reduce sound and muzzle flash, and are designed to reach a target up to two kilometres [1.2 miles] away,” CBC Radio reported after the deal was revealed.

PGW made the news in February 2016 when it sold the same weapons to Saudi Arabia and which ended up in the hands of Houthi rebels following a battle with Saudi forces. 

Last December, Canada added Ukraine to the Automatic Firearms Country Control List that will enable Canadian companies and individuals to apply for a permit to export certain restricted firearms, weapons and devices to Ukraine.

“But it still comes down to the government of Canada hasn’t made any donations of weapons to Ukraine,” said Mr. Bezan.

In May, his party said that, if it led Canada’s government, it would provide Ukraine with lethal weapons originally allocated to Kurdish Peshmerga fighters against the Islamic State in northern Iraq, and claimed, in a news release, that $9.5 million (about $7.2 million U.S.) worth of arms “have been sitting in warehouses in Canada and Jordan.”

The arsenal includes anti-tank missiles, mortar systems, rocket-propelled grenades, sniper rifles, machine guns and hand guns, according to Mr. Bezan, who said that Canada should send those arms to Ukraine. “It would be a nice gesture and it would send a strong message to Russia.” 

Defense equipment from the U.S.

Last May, Ukraine tested Javelin anti-tank missiles from the U.S., which Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko said on Twitter would be “used in the event of Russian offensive on the positions of Ukrainian troops” in eastern Ukraine.

In March, the U.S. State Department gave the go-ahead for the sale of 210 missiles and 37 launchers to Ukraine, at an estimated cost of $47 million.

While attending this year’s Halifax International Security Forum, Mr. Klimkin reportedly told reporters that Ukraine and the U.S. “are in discussions about other pieces of defense equipment,” according to the U.S. website,

Mr. Bezan said the Canadian government should also re-equip Ukraine with radar systems to detect mortar and land-based missile attacks. 

The opposition Tories have called on Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s Liberal government to restore the sharing of satellite images with Ukraine’s military that the Conservatives, under former Prime Minister Stephen Harper, began in 2015 and which the Liberals later cancelled after forming government that year. 

Mr. Bezan said that “other than adding Ukraine to the Automatic Firearms Country Control List, there hasn’t been anything new” regarding Canadian military assistance toward Ukraine since Operation UNIFIER was launched in 2015.

“That’s the only new piece in what the Liberals have done versus what we did as a Conservative government,” he said, noting that the House of Commons Standing Committee on National Defense, for which he serves as vice-chair, expects to receive an update from the Canadian Defense Department on the future of the military mission to Ukraine in the new year.

“[The Conservatives] have made demands for more support for Ukraine and we’ll continue to do that,” said Mr. Bezan, who also called for further Canadian sanctions against Russia. 

“We believe, as the government-in-waiting, that Ukraine continues to need our support, and that Canada is one of the strongest allies that Ukraine has. We have to continue to stand by it, shoulder to shoulder, and that means helping Ukraine in every way possible to end Russia’s proxy war in Donbas and its illegal occupation of Crimea.”

However, Mr. Sajjan said that during his recent chat with Mr. Klimkin, Ukraine’s foreign affairs minister praised Canada for its NATO contribution from which Ukraine benefits. 

“He said that Canada is protecting NATO’s eastern flank – from our troops in Latvia and Ukraine, to our air-policing in Romania and to our frigate in the Black Sea,” said Minister Sajjan.

“It was interesting how he characterized that. I hadn’t seen it that way.”