Canada extending military mission in Ukraine to 2019
Foreign minister says Canada should prepare for Russian attempts to destabilize its democracy
Canada is officially extending its military training mission in Ukraine until the end of March 2019, Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland and Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan announced Monday in Ottawa.
"The purpose of the UNIFIER operation is to support Ukraine forces by providing military instruction and capacity building in order to maintain the sovereignty of Ukraine," Freeland told reporters.
"Ukraine is a very important partner to Canada and we will continue to support its efforts for democracy and economic growth," she added.
Freeland said that Canada's mission in Ukraine has seen the forces of both countries work together in a professional way that has helped improve their respective militaries.
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Sajjan said the focus is on training Ukraine's forces. Specifically, Canadian forces will be helping with small team training, explosive ordnance disposal, military policing, medical training and modernizing Ukraine's logistics system.
"I am proud of the talented and dedicated women and men of the Canadian Armed Forces who contribute to a more stable world, as we demonstrate our reliability as a partner to our allies and our commitment to European security," Sajjan said in a statement issued to reporters.
The renewed mission will involve 200 soldiers, the same number mandated by the former Conservative government.
Asked whether further helping Ukraine would put Canada in Russia's sights, Sajjan said that Russia's actions were what caused Canada to step in and help Ukraine in the first place.
Attempting to discredit Canada
Freeland was asked if the Russian regime is attempting to discredit her after a number of articles appeared on pro-Russian websites alleging her maternal grandfather was a Nazi collaborator in Ukraine during the Second World War.
The minister said she is a fan of Russian culture and language, which she speaks, and has many friends who still live in the country.
"I think that it is also public knowledge that there have been efforts, as U.S. intelligence forces have said, by Russia to destabilize the U.S. political system," said Freeland.
"I think that Canadians, and indeed other Western countries, should be prepared for similar efforts to be directed at us. I am confident in our country's democracy and I am confident that we can stand up to, and see through, those efforts."
Later Monday, the Russian Embassy in Canada issued a statement denouncing the extension of the mission in Ukraine.
The "Canadian government's decision to extend the military mission in Ukraine is counterproductive and does not facilitate intra-Ukrainian political process, including direct dialogue between Kyiv and Donbass, as prescribed by the Minsk accords," said Kirill Kalinin, a spokesperson for the embassy, in a statement.
The Minsk accords were supposed to stop the conflict between Ukrainian forces and combined Russian-separatist forces in the eastern districts.
"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," he said.
Ukraine ambassador approves
On the opposite side, the Ukrainian ambassador to Canada was elated with the news.
"It is a sign of solidarity with Ukraine, a powerful signal of deterrence to Russia and a strong sign of Canadian leadership in dealing with global challenges," said Andriy Shevchenko.
Military training, he said, was one avenue of defence co-operation between the two countries.
"It is about brotherhood-in-arms and brotherhood-in-values."
There was, however, no word on Monday whether Ukraine would be added to the Automatic Firearms Country Control List, which is something the government in Kyiv has lobbied for since the Conservatives were in power.
Getting on the registry is the first step in allowing Canadian manufacturers to ship arms to the embattled country, where since the beginning of the year there has been renewed fighting in contested eastern districts.
The plan, first broached in 2015, is opposed by human rights groups.
The Conservative Opposition in the House of Commons Monday criticized the Liberal government for not renewing an arrangement where Canadian satellite images were shared with Ukrainian authorities.
"Our fears that the Liberal commitment to the defence of Ukraine is fading became reality today," said Conservative MP Peter Kent.
"After ignoring appeals from Ukraine for almost a year, we now have an 11th-hour bare-bones extension of Operation UNIFIER, but this extension does not speak to the recent deadly surge in the Russian-backed war. It does not respond to Ukraine's request for an expansion of Operation UNIFIER, or to the appeal for defensive military weapons."
As CBC News reported last fall, the Liberal government gave its assurance privately to Ukrainian officials that the deployment, which was due to expire this month, would be extended.
A fresh rotation of Canadian troops, who have been providing combat training, first aid and roadside bomb defusing skills to Ukraine soldiers, departed recently for the multinational instruction centre in Lviv.
With files from Peter Zimonjic