Canada is sending troops to beleaguered Ukraine, the target of Russian aggression since early 2014, to train the soldiers Kiev is using to battle Moscow-backed rebels.
A shaky ceasefire is currently in place in eastern Ukraine but there are concerns that Russian separatists are planning a spring offensive.
Defence Minister Jason Kenney insists, however, that Canadian soldiers will be training Ukrainian troops rather than fighting Moscow-backed forces.
This is the second deployment into a major regional conflict that the Conservative government has announced in the past seven months. One Canadian soldier has died in northern Iraq, where 69 special-forces personnel were sent last fall on what was also supposed to be a non-combat mission.
Canada will send about 200 soldiers to Ukraine, as early as June, for a training mission that is expected to last until March 31, 2017. They will join American and British troops in this U.S.-led effort, which is being conducted outside of the NATO military alliance.
The Harper government framed the deployment as an effort to ward off Russian expansionism and counter Moscow’s efforts to destabilize eastern Ukraine. Canadians will train Ukrainians in military tactics, bomb disposal, flight safety, logistics and first aid.
Mr. Kenney said upgrading the skills of Ukrainian soldiers “presents a stronger deterrence against Russian aggression” in Ukraine.
“We understand that there have been an extraordinarily high level of casualties and a disproportionately high level of fatalities coming from the Ukrainian side and so we believe … all of these capabilities will help save lives should there be renewed conflict.”
Prime Minister Stephen Harper posed for cameras at the announcement of the Ukrainian deployment Tuesday but declined to take questions, leaving Mr. Kenney and General Tom Lawson, Chief of the Defence Staff, to explain the mission.
The Conservatives said Canadian soldiers will be located in western Ukraine, far from the fighting between Kiev and Russia-backed separatists.
“Most of our troops will be located 1,300 kilometres away from the conflict,” Mr. Kenney said. “The Polish border is virtually within sight of where our troops will be training. So this is not a difficult place from which to extract should circumstances become unpredictable.”
The mission is expected to cost as much as $32-million over two years, Ottawa said.
The Official Opposition raised concerns about the deployment, which will mean a buildup of Western troops within Ukraine. “This is a dangerous region … it’s a significant troop commitment for a lengthy period. We think this raises a lot of questions,” NDP defence critic Jack Harris said, adding that the Commons should debate the matter.
Kiev needs a “much stronger, more stable and more professional military” but it also needs a “stronger, more stable and less corrupt government and we need to decide what level of support we can give to either of those things and which is the most important.”
The government said the NDP is free to use an opposition day in the Commons to discuss the matter.
Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau supports the new mission, saying he feels reassured Canadian troops will be far from the front line.
“As a strong friend and ally of Ukraine, we need to make sure that we’re doing what we can to help against the unacceptable Russian actions,” Mr. Trudeau said in Oakville, Ont., Wednesday.
The Ukrainian government relies on a variety of fighters, including controversial far-right militias such as the Azov Battalion, to wage war against the Moscow-backed rebels. Some of these self-created militia groups are now being integrated into the Ukrainian military structure.
Asked if Canada would also be training these militia groups, Mr. Kenney said he expects soldiers will be instructing units from the Ukrainian National Guard and later battalion-sized units from the Ukrainian army.
“This is military training. Our trainers are not political scientists,” he said.
Paul Grod, president of the Ukrainian Canadian Congress, applauded the mission. He urged Canada, home to more than 1 million Canadians of Ukrainian origin, to give Ukraine weaponry as well. He said the training effort by Canada, the U.S. and Britain makes sense given fears about a new push by pro-Russian separatists.Report Typo/Error