'Quite a formidable foe' Ukraine facing: Canadian training commander

The Ukraine army faces a "formidable foe" in eastern Ukraine, says the commander of the Canadian Forces training mission. It is the kind of multifaceted insurgency that is also teaching the Canadian Army some new tactics.

From IEDs and tanks to drones and cyber-warfare, Russian-backed rebel insurgency a 'hybrid war'

Canadian soldiers train alongside Ukrainian soldiers at the International Peacekeeping and Security Centre in Starychi, Ukraine, in November 2015 as part of Operation Unifier (Joint Task Force Ukraine, DND)

They are not at the front lines of the war in eastern Ukraine, not even close. But the commander of Canada's training mission in the western part of the country feels that his team is having "a profound impact" on the culture and professionalism of the Ukrainian army.

"We really established our credibility as instructors, and I think that helped sort out any doubts they may have had about what the Canadian Army could offer them," Lt.-Col. Jason Guiney told CBC Thursday.

At first there was resistance, he said, with veteran Ukrainian military officers wondering how Canada's experience in Afghanistan related to the rebel war along that country's eastern border with Russia.

"This is not Afghanistan, it's a much more hybrid war; a mixture of everything from insurgency, roadside bombs, conventional tactics, cyber-electronic warfare, so it's a quite a formidable foe they are facing there," said Guiney. 

Two Canadian Forces members raise the Canadian flag in front of the counter-IED school at the Kamyanets Podilsky Demining Centre in Ukraine. ( Canadian Forces Combat Camera, DND)

In return, though, the Ukrainians are also teaching Canada about that kind of multifaceted war.

"They are quite open about the use of drones, radio jamming, modern tanks. These are lessons we didn't learn in Afghanistan, and very valuable lessons for our own army," he said.

Operation Unifier began in September last year after Canada committed 200 soldiers and officers to help build and modernize the Ukrainian army. 

The first rotation from the 1st Battalion Royal Canadian Regiment from Petawawa, Ont., wraps up its five-month deployment this week. A second team, mostly from the 3rd Battalion Royal 22e Regiment  based in Valcartier, Que., arrives next Monday. The mission is supposed to last until March 2017.

Fighting continues

Officially, a ceasefire is supposed to be in effect in the Donbass region of eastern Ukraine, where Russian-backed separatists control much of the area.

But fighting continues to flare up, including a powerful explosion in the centre of Donetsk, one of the largest cities in the region, on Dec. 21. 

Over 9,000 people, both military and civilians, have died during the almost two years of conflict, according to the UN.

"We are training a mixture of combat-experienced infantry, who have just rotated out of Donbass, and veterans who were trained years ago but have been brought back into the army," said Guiney.

A 55-day training course takes soldiers through basic rifle shooting and combat first aid to company-level mechanized tactics.

More senior level training focuses on engineering, military policing and countering IEDs, improvised explosive devices.

Canada has supplied $3.5 million worth of counter-IED equipment, some of which is being used now in eastern Ukraine. Since January 2014, there have been over 500 IED incidents across Ukraine, according to Guiney.

Casualties high

The Ukrainian army has suffered a large number of casualties since the conflict started in March 2014. The Ukraine army is operating with old, Soviet-style equipment, which is not a match for the newer Russian-supplied weaponry used by the separatists.

In a twist of history, much of Ukraine's army was trained by the Soviets before the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991.

The training facility in Starychi, where the Canadians are based, has changed its name to the International Peacekeeping and Security Centre, but it used to be a Soviet training base.

Guiney said much of what he deems successful has been convincing Ukraine's senior military leadership to consider changes to its "top heavy military structure," where the decision-making is left to only the highest levels.

"They have a dated military culture," he said. They've been able to see "how we delegate responsibility and authority" further down the ranks.

A lieutenant-colonel who served in Afghanistan and also on several peacekeeping missions in East Africa and Haiti, Guiney describes this experience as "kind of surreal."

"When I joined the army, it was post-Cold War, but we were still training against Warsaw Pact tactics. We studied their doctrine, their vehicles and now we are working with that kind of equipment."


Susan Ormiston

Senior correspondent

Susan Ormiston's career spans more than 25 years reporting from hot spots such as Afghanistan, Egypt, Libya, Haiti, Lebanon and South Africa.


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