Canada extending military missions in Ukraine, Iraq
'The people of Ukraine know they can count on Canada' - Freeland
Canada extended its military missions in both Ukraine and Iraq today, taking a stand-pat approach to two of the world's flashpoint conflicts.
Late last year, the all-party House of Commons defence committee called on the Liberal government to "look for opportunities to expand the type of training and support" provided by the Canadian military to Ukrainian forces.
There will be no change, however, to the size and composition of the 200-soldier Canadian contingent.
Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland defended that decision, pointing out that the government is demonstrating its support for Ukraine in multiple ways — by, for instance, expanding the list of sanctions targeting Russian businessmen and by helping monitor upcoming elections in the eastern European country.
"I'm very confident this the support Ukraine needs," Freeland said of the renewed military mission, which will now extend to the end of March 2022.
She insisted the mission's terms are flexible enough to allow Canadian soldiers to offer various types of training and help to reform Ukraine's defence establishment — something the parliamentary committee also wanted to see.
"This is a mission, actually, that allows us to meet Ukraine's needs and to offer new forms of support as Ukraine needs them," Freeland said.
The Ukrainian army continues to battle separatists in eastern regions. Tensions spiked a few months ago when Russia seized three Ukrainian naval vessels and 23 crew members over a dispute in the waters off the Crimean Peninsula.
On Friday, in response to the incident in the Kerch Strait, Canada and several other western countries imposed further sanctions on Russian individuals, notably Vladimir Yakunin, a long-time ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Yakunin was placed on a U.S. sanctions list in March, 2014, shortly after Crimea was annexed, but the former Conservative government did not follow suit.
As the former head of Russian Railways, he had strong business ties with Canada — particularly with Montreal-based train manufacturer Bombardier Inc. In a 2015 interview with The Canadian Press, he was asked if those links had shielded him from being blacklisted by Canada.
"I suppose Canadians are not the same masochists, like, you know, Europeans," he said at a dinner involving news agency heads from around the world. "This is jokingly answering your question. I consider that I am known enough in Canada as a promoter of the idea of collaboration."
The Liberals, while still in opposition four years ago, promised to place both Yakunin and another Putin ally, Igor Sechin, under sanction. Freeland defended the length of time it's taken to deliver on that pledge.
"I'm very glad we've included them on this latest sanctions list," she said. "We do the work necessary to ensure that we are focused on the appropriate people. We've done that work. This is a strong action by Canada."
Yurii Nykytiuk, a spokesman for the Ukrainian embassy in Ottawa, said his government appreciates the extension of the military mission because "it helps save the lives of Ukrainian soldiers" and assists his country in pursuing its goal of one day joining NATO.
"It wouldn't be fair for me to say that we do not need more instructors in Ukraine, but the job the Canadian Armed Forces is doing is a tremendous job, and we value it very much," he said.
The Ukraine mission's mandate was due to expire at the end of the month.
The second mission being extended involves a training and advisory deployment in Iraq.
That deployment — leading the NATO training mission and giving direct support to the U.S.-led coalition that has been hunting down the remnants of the Islamic State group — will now continue until the end of March 2021.
The extension of the Iraq mission comes as no surprise. Last summer, the Liberal government agreed to lead the NATO training mission headquartered in Baghdad.
Canada is providing 250 soldiers, a headquarters, security forces and transportation to other alliance members training Iraqi forces to handle security on their own.
Separately and distinctly, Canadian special forces also are providing direct advice and assistance to Iraqi troops in the northern part of the war-torn country.
Sajjan said Canada's mission allows Iraq and coalition partners to "more effectively plan and execute military operations aimed at improving stability in the region."
Canada first deployed troops and fighter jets to the campaign against the Islamic State in the fall of 2014 after the extremist group captured vast swaths of territory in both Syria and Iraq.