Ukraine asks Canada to renew training mission as crisis with Russia heats up
'All of these provocations by Russia, they are a good reason to reinforce what we already do'
Canada is being asked to renew its military training mission to Ukraine — a proposal that's taking on a whole new level of urgency as border tension ramps up with Russia.
Canada's deployment of 200 soldiers is up for renewal in March.
The recent clash in the Black Sea, near the Kerch Strait, involving three Ukrainian navy patrol boats and the Russian coast guard cast a shadow over the G20 meeting in Argentina and prompted the cancellation of a face-to-face session between U.S. President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Moscow seized three Ukrainian naval ships and their crews Sunday in waters off Russian-annexed Crimea. Tensions in the region — particularly over the Kerch Strait — have been building for months and aren't likely to dissipate soon, said Ukraine's ambassador to Canada in an interview with CBC News.
"All of these provocations by Russia, they are a good reason to reinforce what we already do," said Andriy Shevchenko. "We expect and hope Canada will renew its Operation Unifier, which is this wonderful training mission that Canada has in Ukraine."
Since being deployed by the previous Conservative government in the wake of Russia's 2014 annexation of Crimea, Canadian troops have trained almost 8,000 Ukrainian soldiers in advanced small combat team skills, bomb disposal, medical care and military policing.
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The operation comes under the umbrella of the Multinational Joint Commission, which includes Canada, Ukraine, Britain and the United States. It is not a NATO mission, but its intention is to bring Ukrainian forces up to the standard of Western militaries.
Shevchenko suggested there is a political imperative to remaining engaged in his country because of its upcoming elections.
"Next year is going to be a very important year in Ukraine," he said.
"We'll have our presidential election, our parliamentary election. I say it will be a workshop to learn how Russia is going to interfere in the politics of other countries."
And countering that interference "is the kind of experience we would like to share with our Western friends."
The not-so-subtle message is that Canada, with a federal election of its own happening next year, would benefit from staying involved in Ukraine.
The Liberal government has not said whether it will renew the training mission. It will be subjected to a standard policy review this winter.
Canada's top military commander, Gen. Jonathan Vance, told CBC Radio's The House on Saturday that events surrounding the Kerch Strait and the subsequent imposition of martial law in 10 Ukrainian provinces (known as oblasts) "won't have an immediate impact on our mission."
Increased tension with Russia, however, is something policymakers will note.
"It will certainly be taken into consideration as the government looks to the future with any of its engagements in Ukraine," Vance said.
"It may very well change the dynamic at the government level in Ukraine. They're approaching an election, the imposition of martial law — all of that will have an impact in Ukraine."
Russia has declared its sovereignty over the Kerch Strait, setting the stage for further confrontations.
Analysts at the U.S.-based think-tank the Institute for the Study of War said in a report released Friday that the "escalation is part of a broader campaign by the Kremlin to test the thresholds of tolerance to its aggression and identify
vulnerabilities in the U.S. and NATO."
An expert in eastern European studies said he wonders if the current crisis is a turning point in the protracted conflict, as some observers have suggested, or if it will blow over — leaving the years-long stalemate between Ukraine and Russia in place.
David Carment, a professor of international affairs at Carleton University, said that, in the past, tensions in Ukraine have had a tendency to flare up shortly before Putin leaves Moscow for some major international conference like the G20.
It gives the government in Kyiv the excuse to call for tighter sanctions and an opening to embarrass Putin before the world, he said.
The unpopularity of Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, who is running third in public opinion surveys ahead of next year's election, gives him ample motivation to seize on the incident in the Kerch Strait and the capture of Ukrainian sailors, Carment said.
He also noted the Ukrainian navy is weak; he expects it will stage many of its forces in Mariupol, along the Sea of Azov, as a show of deterrence.
"They were testing the Russians, their resolve and their commitment [in the Sea of Azov] and have found the Russians — at least at this point — aren't going to back down," Carment said.
The Ukrainians have asked NATO to back them up in the disputed waters.
Michael Carpenter, a defence expert at the University of Pennsylvania, said the U.S. should lead discussions with NATO about establishing a standing naval force in the Black Sea.
At the moment, the alliance only conducts periodic patrols there.
In an article this week for the Atlantic Council, Carpenter also argued that Washington "should provide Ukraine with defensive security assistance to address its maritime vulnerabilities."
That could include land-based anti-ship missiles, radar and surveillance equipment.