Ukraine asks Canada to send message to Russia by extending military mission


OTTAWA — Ukraine is asking Canada to send a “strong signal” to Russia by extending and expanding the Canadian military’s training mission there.

In an interview with The Canadian Press on Monday, Ukrainian Ambassador Andriy Shevchenko expressed confidence that Canada would renew the military mission, whose mandate is up at the end of March.

But the sooner an extension and expansion to Operation Unifier, as the mission is known, is announced, the better, he said.

“One of the ideas behind this Operation Unifier from the very beginning was to send a very strong signal to Russia to deter them and to make sure that they understand that Ukraine has very strong support at the international level,” Shevchenko said.

“So the earlier we send this signal and the louder we say this, the stronger the signal should be. That is why we have always encouraged our Canadian partners to go ahead with the announcement of the renewal as quickly as possible.”

The Canadian Forces have had about 200 service members in Ukraine since September 2015 to help train the country’s military, which is battling Russian-backed separatist forces.

The U.S., Britain, Poland, Lithuania, Sweden and Denmark are also helping train the Ukrainians. The Canadians have trained more than 10,000 Ukrainian soldiers over more than three years, according to the Department of National Defence.

While Canada’s mission initially focused on teaching Ukrainian troops the basics of soldiering, including how to use their weapons and move in units, it has since expanded to focus on more specific skills such as first aid as well as training some commanders.

Kyiv is now hoping Canada will widen the mission even further by working with larger units and higher-level officers, Shevchenko said, “which means the training that we get can provide much greater impact on the ground.”

The request for more assistance comes as Ukraine and Russia remained in a deadly standoff over the Donbass, a region in eastern Ukraine that is claimed by separatist rebels backed by Moscow.

The conflict has killed an estimated 13,000 people since April 2014, wounded tens of thousands and forced many more to flee their homes. Ukraine and Russia are also at odds over the latter’s annexation of the Crimean Peninsula nearly five years ago.

Last week, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko renewed his country’s calls for a UN mission to the Donbass, which would include deploying peacekeepers across the region and along Ukraine’s border with Russia.

While Russia has said it is open to a UN mission, it has opposed putting peacekeepers along the border and instead suggested they protect observers from the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, who are monitoring ceasefire violations.

Shevchenko praised both the Trudeau government and the official Opposition Conservatives for supporting his country’s bid for a peacekeeping mission, adding that Canadian and Ukrainian officials “are on the same page.”

“We feel we understand each other,” he said. “And we hope that Canada will use its international authority to work with other countries to make sure that we consolidate support.”

Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland said in November 2017 that Canada was leading a diplomatic push for a peacekeeping mission to Ukraine. Spokesman Adam Austen said Freeland and others have since raised it with a variety of countries.

Conservative defence critic James Bezan last week said the Tories are also in favour of a UN mission.

Shevchenko, meanwhile, predicted Canada, the U.S. and the European Union will announce fresh sanctions against Russia very soon, after Russian forces seized three Ukrainian naval vessels and 24 sailors in November.

“My understanding is that the decision is in the pipeline, and we are very soon to get some news on this,” he said. “We hope to see this co-ordinated decision and announcement from our western friends in the near future.”

— Follow @leeberthiaume on Twitter.

Lee Berthiaume, The Canadian Press