Canadian military trainers pulled out of Ukraine before anticipated Russian invasion: sources

Canadian military trainers have been withdrawn from Ukraine, several sources tell CBC News. The relocation of the troops to Poland took place as other allied nations pulled their trainers out of the eastern European country ahead of an anticipated Russian invasion this week.

A contingent of roughly 260 soldiers has arrived in Poland, CBC News has learned

Members of Ukraine's Territorial Defense Forces, volunteer military units of the armed forces, train close to Kyiv, the Ukrainian capital, on Jan. 29. (Efrem Lukatsky/The Associated Press)

Canadian military trainers were pulled out of Ukraine this weekend ahead of anticipated Russian military action, which allied intelligence agencies suggest could come this week.

CBC News has learned that the contingent of roughly 260 soldiers has arrived in Poland, but it's unclear whether that will be their final destination.

The decision to suspend Operation Unifier, the largest allied training mission in the embattled eastern European country, came after both the United States and the United Kingdom ordered their own military trainers out of Ukraine.

In addition, the Canadian Embassy has relocated its diplomatic operations and presence from Kyiv, the capital, to the western city of Lviv, along the Polish border.

The Department of National Defence confirmed the troop movement in a statement, saying the military is "in the process of temporarily relocating components of Joint Task Force — Ukraine (JTF-U) to elsewhere in Europe."

The statement said the decision does not signal the end of the training mission. The Defence Department would not confirm how many troops have left and what will happen next, citing operational security.

WATCH | Canada pulls its military trainers from Ukraine:

Canada relocates soldiers training in Ukraine as fear of Russian invasion grows

2 years ago
Duration 2:02
Canada has relocated more than 200 of its soldiers training in Ukraine as the fear of a Russian invasion grows, despite numerous diplomatic efforts to avoid it.

"Force protection is the top priority for our training mission, of which operational security is a key component," the statement said. "Thus, while we can confirm we have relocated some of our forces outside of Ukraine, we will not discuss numbers, locations or future intentions." 

In a tweet, Defence Minister Anita Anand also described the troop movement as temporary.

Foreign Affairs Minister Mélaine Joly, appearing Sunday morning on CBC's Rosemary Barton Live, deferred questions about the training mission to her cabinet colleague.

"We have trained more than 30,000 [Ukrainian] soldiers and reservists, but it is not a combat mission, so that's why it's important they are kept safe," Joly said. "The Minister of Defence Anita Anand is working on this."

Ukraine is ready, president says

Russia continues to deny it has plans to invade Ukraine, but it has assembled more than 100,000 troops and marines, as well as an arsenal of sophisticated weapons, on its northern and eastern border — as well as in the Black Sea, to the south of its neighbour. Washington has warned that military action could begin as soon as the middle of this week.

All of the Russian forces are conducting large-scale training exercises along the border.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has demanded that Ukraine never be allowed to join NATO and that the Western military alliance roll back its deployments in eastern Europe to 1997 levels. 

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky speaks during a news conference for the foreign media in Kyiv on Jan. 28. He has consistently downplayed the threat of an 'imminent' invasion by Russia, despite a buildup of troops and military equipment at its borders. (Ukrainian Presidential Press Service/Reuters)

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, who has consistently downplayed the threat of an "imminent" invasion, said on Saturday during a visit with troops in the southern region of Kherson that surprises can happen at any time and that an escalation "can take place without warning."

He said the most important thing is that the country is ready.

Zelensky said he was grateful for the intelligence warnings of allies and that the information is being analyzed.

"Now the best friend for the enemy is panic in our country," he said.

The withdrawal of Canadian trainers came as Prime Minister Justin Trudeau spoke by telephone with Zelensky on Saturday.

The Ukrainian president spoke about the internal threats his country has been facing and the efforts to destabilize institutions and the economy, according to a readout from Zelensky's office.

Canadian soldiers conduct a demonstration of vehicle recovery techniques alongside Ukrainian soldiers at the International Peacekeeping and Security Centre in Starychi, Ukraine, during Operation Unifier, in November 2015. (Joint Task Force Ukraine/DND)

"I appreciate Canada's support for Ukraine," Zelensky said in a statement. "The already provided financial support to our state in the amount of $120 million and the continuation of the Unifier training mission are really important for us."

Last month, the Liberal government pledged to extend and expand the military training mission.


Murray Brewster

Senior reporter, defence and security

Murray Brewster is senior defence writer for CBC News, based in Ottawa. He has covered the Canadian military and foreign policy from Parliament Hill for over a decade. Among other assignments, he spent a total of 15 months on the ground covering the Afghan war for The Canadian Press. Prior to that, he covered defence issues and politics for CP in Nova Scotia for 11 years and was bureau chief for Standard Broadcast News in Ottawa.