Canadian peacekeeping mission in Ukraine 'Plan B' for Kyiv, official says

Ukraine is keeping the option of a Canadian-led peacekeeping mission in its war-torn eastern districts in its back pocket as the country tiptoes towards peace talks with Russia, the country's deputy foreign minister says.

For Ukraine, the preferred option would be a successful outcome to peace talks

Ukrainian tanks move near Mariupol, Donetsk region, eastern Ukraine in October 2015. (The Associated Press/Irina Gorbaseva)

Asking Canada to take part a peacekeeping mission in war-torn, separatist-minded eastern districts of Ukraine would be "Plan B" for the recently elected government of President Volodymyr Zelensky, the country's deputy foreign minister said Thursday.

Vasyl Bodnar is in Ottawa for meetings to shore up support among allies and to keep their focus on the bloody, five-year-old conflict which has claimed over 13,000 lives. 

It is a daunting task, given that Ukraine is at the centre of the unfolding impeachment drama in Washington.

Plan A, said Bodnar, involves the full implementation of the long-standing Minsk peace agreement, signed in 2015, but only partially implemented as both sides flouted it and fighting raged with Russian-backed separatists in two breakaway districts.

Vasyl Bodnar, the deputy foreign minister of Ukraine, is in Canada for meetings aimed at shoring up support among allies for the renewed peace process, which is aimed at ending the conflict with Russian-backed separatists in the eastern portion of the country. (Murray Brewster/ CBC News)

Zelensky rode to office last spring in a landslide victory where peace was one of his principal promises. 

There have been glimmers of hope.

The Ukrainian army and rebel forces began a phased withdrawal from the eastern town of Zolte, one of three areas in Donbass where the opposing sides are taking a limited step back from the fighting. 

Bodnar said it is a confidence-building measure intended to clear a path for the resumption of four-way peace talks involving Ukraine, Russia, France and Germany.

Provided a local ceasefire holds, he said there will be similar pullback in the nearby town of Petrivske.

Zelensky met Thursday in Kyiv with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg to update him on the way ahead.

Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelensky gives a joint press conference following talks with Poland's President on bilateral relations and Ukraine's ties with Europe under the new government, at the Presidential Place in Warsaw on August 31, 2019. - Zelenskiy is in Warsaw with members of his new cabinet and will attend ceremonies marking 80 years since the outbreak of World War II. (Janek Skarzynski/AFP/Getty Images)

A lot of hope has, naturally, been pinned on the peace talks under the so-called "Normandy Format," so named because of where world leaders created the group in 2014 during the 70th anniversary of the allied landings in France.

There is still deep apprehension about the talks, despite the cautious withdrawals this week.

"There is no trust to Russia. Russia broke all of the international agreements they had with Ukraine," said Bodnar. "They broke their international obligations with regard to Ukraine.

"We still need united support from the whole world to implement the Minsk agreement."

The idea of a United Nations-organized, Canadian-led peacekeeping mission was initially posed when former Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko was still in power. The idea was discussed with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

While committed to Ukraine with its extension to Canada's military training mission there, the Liberal government has remained circumspect about whether it would take part in a peacekeeping operation.

Conservatives, during the federal election, made peacekeeping in Ukraine a platform promise.

The call would come, Bodnar said, if the Minsk process fall apart.

"If this track will not be sufficient — or will not bring results — we will turn back to Plan B, which proposed the idea of a peacekeeping operation in the Donbass territory of Ukraine and then we will ask Canada, as one of our biggest allies, to participate," Bodnar told CBC News. 

Russia's annexation of the Crimean peninsula in 2014 began the rupture with Ukraine. 

A rebellion, backed by Russian forces and heavy equipment, in the two eastern districts of Donbass and Luhansk started soon afterwards.

Moscow has, in the intervening years, heavily fortified Crimea with modern air and sea defence weapons.

Bodnar said the aim of the Zelensky government remains not only the restoration of its border with Russia in the east, but the return and de-militarization of Crimea.


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.