Trudeau, Ukrainian president talk sanctions, extending training mission to deter Russian military

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau today discussed extending Canada's military training mission and the prospect of more sanctions on Moscow as Russian troops conducted a live fire exercise on Ukraine's border.

Russian troops conducted a live-fire exercise on Ukraine's border

Ukrainian marines take a fighting position on the line of separation from pro-Russian rebels in Donetsk region, Ukraine on Friday, Jan. 7, 2022. (Andriy Dubchak/Associated Press)

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau today discussed extending Canada's military training mission and the prospect of more sanctions on Moscow as Russian troops conducted a live-fire exercise on Ukraine's border.

The discussion between the two leaders took place by phone one day ahead of direct talks between Russian diplomats and a 30-member NATO council — negotiations meant to dial back tensions between Ukraine and Russia.

In a tweet, Zelensky said he spoke with Trudeau about the security situation in Donbas, the eastern region of the country where Russian proxy forces have been fighting the Ukrainian Army since 2014.

Zelensky also said they exchanged views on international efforts to de-escalate the crisis and the continuation of Operation Unifer, the 200-strong Canadian military training mission headquartered in the western part of the country.

In Defence Minister Anita Anand's mandate letter, the Liberal government signalled that it intends to renew the mission when its mandate expires in March. That would still require formal cabinet approval.

In a statement late Tuesday, Trudeau's office said the prime minister reaffirmed "Canada's steadfast support for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine and emphasized that any military incursion into Ukraine would have serious consequences, including coordinated sanctions."

The statement said the prime minister also "emphasized the coordination underway between Ukraine's partners in order to stand united in the face of Russian provocation."

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau meets with Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky during a bilateral meeting of the Ukraine Reform Conference in Toronto on July 2, 2019. (Chris Helgren/Reuters)

The idea of further sanctions — seen as a principal instrument of retaliation in the event Russia invades Ukraine — has been discussed among the allies for weeks. Both the United States and NATO have said they will not send troops to repel any military action by Moscow.

The statement went on to say that the two leaders expressed the hope that Wednesday's NATO-Russia Council meeting, along with other diplomatic efforts, would help to reduce tensions.

Ukraine's foreign minister said he believes his country's diplomatic efforts have paid off so far.

"The unity of the collective West destroys Russian hopes to make arrangements with the Americans while other partners are sidestepped," Dmytro Kuleba said in a statement to CBC News.

"Ukraine continues working intensively to strengthen the international unity in the face of today's threats. This is a key element in the strategy to counteract Russia and part of a complex package to deter Russia from further aggression." 

The conversation between Zelensky and Trudeau unfolded against a menacing backdrop as 3,000 Russian troops, backed by tanks, conducted a major training exercise with live ammunition in western Russia near the border with Ukraine.

The past two days of talks between senior American officials and Russian negotiators in Geneva have been inconclusive. U.S. Ambassador to NATO Julianne Smith reassured allies today that they are united going into this next meeting.

"NATO is open and committed to a meaningful reciprocal dialogue with Russia," said Smith. "At the same time, we stand united to deter threats against NATO allies and further Russian aggression against our partners in Europe."

Russia has called on NATO to guarantee in writing that it won't expand eastward into Ukraine and another former Soviet republic, Georgia. The demand has been firmly rejected by the U.S., NATO and Ukraine.

Moscow also wants a pullback of all NATO forces deployed in eastern Europe to a line that existed in 1997, prior to the inclusion of former East Bloc countries.

Russian troops take part in drills at the Kadamovskiy firing range in the Rostov region in southern Russia on Dec. 14, 2021. (AP)

The phone call between Zelensky and Trudeau was one of several high-level conversations about Ukraine that took place today.

Anand spoke with her Danish counterpart, the Department of National Defence (DND) said in a statement. Both Canada and Denmark are NATO members and the two ministers talked about the need to show resolve in the face of the massive Russian military buildup and rising tensions over Ukraine.

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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.

With files from Reuters