Canadian training mission in Ukraine suspended after surge in COVID cases

A surge in COVID cases in Ukraine and among Canadian troops in the eastern European country has prompted the temporary suspension of the military training mission there. The Department of National Defence will not say how many soldiers are infected, citing operational security.

DND won't say how many soldiers have been infected

Ukrainian and Canadian servicemen do training exercises at Yavorivsky training ground close to Lviv, western Ukraine, Thursday, April 15, 2021. (Ukrainian Defense Ministry Press Office via AP)

The Canadian military training mission in Ukraine has been temporarily suspended after a major outbreak of coronavirus among the troops, the Department of National Defence confirmed late Friday.

A spokesperson for the military's joint operational command refused to disclose how many soldiers have tested positive.

"Normal security forces capacity building activities have been temporarily reduced or suspended in training locations as a force protection measure for members of the Task Force and in order to stop the spread of the virus," said Capt. Alexia Croizer, who speaks for the Ottawa-based Canadian Joint Operations Command.

"Members who tested positive are being monitored in isolation and close contacts have been placed in quarantine."

The Globe and Mail was the first to report on the outbreak and noted the spread of the virus prevented a recent change-of-command ceremony between outgoing and incoming commanders.

There are about 200 Canadian troops assigned to the training mission. They are scattered at various locations in central and western Ukraine, with the bulk of the contingent headquartered at Yavoriv near the Polish border.

Canadian Army Lieutenant General Jean-Marc Lanthier, left, addresses Ukrainian soldiers as Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, right, stands by during military drills in base Honcharivske, Chernihiv region, Ukraine, Monday, Dec. 3, 2018. (Efrem Lukatsky/The Associated Press)

While the defence department will not say how many Canadian troops in Ukraine have been hit by COVID-19, it does acknowledge that there are 86 active cases across the entire Armed Forces.

That number was current as of April 12. Since the beginning of the pandemic, there have been 1,396 cases of coronavirus reported among Canadian military members.

Ukraine is experiencing a surge in COVID infections. On Thursday, 16,553 new cases were reported in the eastern European country.

The deteriorating pandemic situation in the country comes at a time of heightened tension with Russia, which has stationed as many as 110,000 troops along Ukrainian border under the guise of military exercises. 

Earlier this year, Canadian soldiers serving as part of the NATO deterrence mission in Latvia experienced an outbreak of COVID-19. In that case, the defence department also refused to say how many soldiers had been infected.

Military moves to vaccinate overseas troops

The latest cases in Ukraine have put the spotlight on the Canadian military's plan to vaccinate troops and the priority given to members deployed overseas.

The defence department will be allocated enough vaccine for 115,000 members. Troops deployed overseas are lower on the priority list.

The first shots will be going to "members working or preparing to work in higher risk clinical settings to assist provinces and territories to protect vulnerable Canadians, such as Long Term Care Facilities or those who have health conditions that place them at increased risk of severe COVID-19 infection," said department spokeswoman Jessica Lamirande.

"While not all members deployed or posted overseas have received their vaccine yet, efforts are well underway to ensure we have a coordinated and resourced plan in place, to reach each and every deployed and posted member."

Members of the military deployed overseas can only receive Health Canada-approved vaccines.

Lamirande said that, in some cases, the defence department "has coordinated with, and authorized, some Host Nation and coalition medical authorities to vaccinate CAF members with Health Canada-approved vaccines from their own national allocations."

She did not identify the countries, nor did she indicate how many shots may have been administered to Canadian personnel.

How quickly the military can get all overseas troops vaccinated is not clear.

"Numbers and timelines are fluid at the moment as it will depend largely on the vaccine availability in other countries, as well as progress made on the vaccination programs both in Canada and in host nations," said Lamirande.


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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