The Harper government signalled Monday it wants to create deeper defence ties with Ukraine, signing a declaration that could lead to broader military co-operation in one of the most volatile parts of the globe.
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As part of that pronouncement, Defence Minister Rob Nicholson revealed Canada is searching for bilateral ways to expand military training with the embattled country and that a team of trainers has arrived for an unspecified mission.
The team of fewer than 10 soldiers will look for training opportunities with Ukrainian forces in the areas of military police, medical personnel and "personal protective measures," but neither the minister nor National Defence could say what that meant in practical terms.
"There are some that will be arriving this evening here in Ukraine that will help out," Nicholson said in a conference call from Kyiv.
"There are a number that have come and gone in support of various missions and the military police, they're coming, they will be here for a deployment and then they will leave. This is a continuing effort."
Deployment not imminent: official
A defence official who was not authorized to discuss the matter publicly later insisted that no deployment of military trainers was imminent.
The official, speaking on condition of anonymity, wouldn't even describe the current group as a pre-deployment team, which lays the groundwork for follow-on forces.
At the same time, Nicholson's parliamentary secretary, Conservative MP James Bezan, revealed in the House of Commons that two CF-18 jet fighters assigned to NATO's Baltic air policing mission intercepted three Russian aircraft in the border vicinity of Lithuania and Estonia.
The Canadian jets are due to rotate home at the end of the month.
In an interview Monday with The Canadian Press, NATO's supreme commander acknowledged separately that Russian air activity throughout eastern Europe has steadily increased, and involves the use of strategic bombers, such as the long-range Tu-95 Bears.
"We have seen some air exercises and air flights recently of several types of Russian strategic bombers-- the Bears and (Tu-22) Backfires out over the Baltic," U.S. Gen. Philip Breedlove said in a telephone interview from Brussels.
"There have been some increased intercepts of Bears and Backfires and, oddly enough, some transport aircraft."
Bezan said the jets intercepted two Russian transport aircraft and a bomber on Sunday.
Canada 'a good participant' in exercises: U.S. general
Four CF-18s were deployed last fall as part of NATO's effort to reassure jittery eastern European allies following Russia's annexation of Crimea and support of pro-Moscow backed rebels in eastern Ukraine.
"Canada has been a good participant in all our exercises," Breedlove said, noting that in addition to air policing Ottawa has deployed a frigate — HMCS Toronto — and sent troops to train in ground manoeuvres.
Canada has already donated quantities of non-lethal military equipment to the government in Kyiv.
In August, the Harper government delivered helmets, protective eyewear, first-aid kits, tents and sleeping bags.
NDP want more details
Last month, the Canadian Forces began shipping more gear, including tactical communication systems, explosive ordinance disposal equipment, tactical medical kits, night vision goggles and winter clothing.
But the pronouncement commits Canada "to collaborate on current and future security concerns," with the intention of "developing broader military-defence co-operation."
"The declaration seeks to initiate a process to strengthen the capacity of the Ukrainian government to defend its borders and people," Nicholson said.
NDP defence critic Jack Harris said he's concerned that Canada is just showing up unilaterally and asking what it can do, without any real consultation with allies in a region that's a strategic tinderbox.
Harris said he's wondering whether Monday's announcement is real — or just elaborate election posturing to please Ukrainian-Canadian voters.
"If it's just window-dressing, that's fine," he said.
"But if this is the start of something more broader in terms of defence co-operation, that is something that needs to be discussed, and certainly discussed with our allies."
An earlier version of this story from the Canadian Press said Bezan did not tell the House of Commons what kind of Russian aircraft were interceptedDec 09, 2014 2:11 PM ET