Defence deal could open the door to weapons sales to Ukraine

The Trudeau government has signed a defence co-operation agreement with Ukraine, a seemingly mundane bit of statecraft that could have far-reaching implications for the eastern European country's bid to buy Canadian-made weapons.

Ukrainian defence minister says country only seeks 'defensive' Canadian-made weapons

Ukrainian Defence Minister Stepan Poltorak is in Ottawa following the signing of a defence co-operation agreement with Canada. (CBC News/ Christian Patry)

The Trudeau government has signed a defence co-operation agreement with Ukraine, a seemingly mundane bit of statecraft that could have far-reaching implications for the eastern European country's bid to buy Canadian-made weapons.

The bilateral deal, signed this week by Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan and his Ukrainian counterpart Stepan Poltorak, increases mutual co-operation in the areas of defence policy, education, defence research and development, as well as production.

It also opens the door for more direct Canadian military and defence industrial support for Ukraine, Poltorak said in an interview with CBC News.

Prior to the last election, the former Conservative government began examining whether to add Ukraine to Canada's automatic firearms country control list, which would allow Canadian exporters to sell the country so-called prohibited weapons.

Global Affairs Canada studied the request and conducted consultations for almost two years without coming to a conclusion.

Poltorak says his government views the new co-operation agreement as a step towards eventually getting on the list.

"I do hope this agreement will serve as the foundation for the future dialogue on the possibility of this sort of assistance to Ukraine," Poltorak said Tuesday in an interview conducted through a translator.

He emphasized the weapons his country is seeking would be defensive in nature and meant to repel attacks by Russian-backed separatists who have been using sophisticated, heavy weapons such as artillery and tanks.

"We are a peaceful country," he said. 

Ukrainian servicemen launch Grad rockets towards pro-Russian separatist forces outside Debaltseve, in Eastern Ukraine, in February 2015. (Alexei Chernyshev/Reuters)

Two human rights groups, Project Ploughshares and Amnesty International, expressed their opposition to the notion of Canadian companies selling weapons to Ukraine.

Aside from meeting Canadian political and military officials, Poltorak met Tuesday with defence industry representatives.

He also pushed his country's case for more aid and equipment.

Canada has donated a bevy of non-lethal military equipment, totalling about $16 million, according to access to information documents obtained by CBC News. 

The support is in addition to the roughly 200 military trainers who are helping instruct Ukrainian army troops, many of them conscripts, in the finer points of close combat.

Overall Canada has provided $700 million in economic and stabilization assistance to Ukraine since Russia annexed the Crimean peninsula and backed a separatist insurgency in the east of the country.

Tweaks to Canada's Ukraine deployment

A briefing prepared for Sajjan last year says Canada has seen from Ukraine a "large volume of requests for military assistance."

The documents show there was an extended, inconclusive internal debate about providing armoured ambulances to evacuate casualties off the battlefield, something the Ukrainian government is still hoping will be coming through.

Poltorak declined to list what kind of equipment his country was seeking, but did say he pitched both Sajjan and Gen. Jonathan Vance, the chief of defence staff, on tweaking the newly extended training mission. 

The proposal would not involve additional troops, but would reconfigure some of the training and perhaps sprinkle Canadians across two other training centres that are under construction.

"It would mean that instructors from Canada are engaged in training our personnel in different military exercise areas and the training programs they provide could also be diversified," said Poltorak, who did not explain what skills he believed could be added to current regime. "This is still a matter of discussion." 

But he noted separately the Canadian military has a sophisticated system of command and control over its soldiers — something the Ukrainians could adopt. 

As of mid-December, the United Nations estimated the death toll in Ukrainian conflict — both civilian and military — stood at 9,758 with another 22,779 wounded in the fighting.


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.


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