Canada is preparing to supply the Ukrainian military with satellite imagery that would give Kiev's forces new high-resolution battle intelligence in their long-running conflict with Moscow-backed separatists, sources say.
Ottawa and Kiev are finalizing an agreement that would see Canada feed Ukraine data from RADARSAT-2, which the Canadian Space Agency says is capable of scanning the Earth day or night through any weather conditions.
A deal is expected to be announced shortly. It's taking shape as Kiev prepares for a new ceasefire deal that is supposed to calm the fighting in eastern Ukraine by Sunday. But there's no guarantee the truce will hold, and the Canadian satellite imagery would give Kiev a high-tech means of independently monitoring whether Moscow is honouring the terms of the ceasefire.
"They will be able to see what is crossing their borders," one source familiar with the plan said.
The Ukrainian government has been battling pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine for more than 10 months, and the United Nations has estimated more than 5,300 people have died in the conflict.
RADARSAT-2, a satellite launched in 2007, is operated by Richmond, B.C.'s MacDonald Dettwiler and Associates for the Canadian government and is used for everything from coastal surveillance by the military to mapping and keeping track of sea ice, crops, pollution and ships.
The decision to supply beleaguered Kiev with sophisticated imagery was not without internal controversy. Some civil servants in the Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development opposed sharing the data, sources say.
The Canadian government will stipulate in the agreement that the satellite pictures should only be used to help Ukraine take defensive measures and not offensive operations such as targeting opposing forces.
The technology will allow Ukraine to redeploy its troops to respond to threats and to determine, for instance, whether Russian Grad rocket launchers are within striking distance of a military checkpoint or Ukrainian city.
Sources say RADARSAT-2 is able to take photos of the Ukraine-Russia border two times a day and offers sufficiently detailed imagery that Kiev could track the movement of objects as small as individual vehicles. "If on the first pass you get an image of vehicles in one spot, it has the resolution to allow you to see in the second pass if vehicles have moved," one source said.
A military source said Ukraine would also be able to use the imagery for public relations, to provide real-time proof to the world should Russian troops or equipment cross the Russia-Ukraine border again. NATO, for instance, made public satellite imagery last June that bolstered Ukraine's assertions that tanks used by eastern Ukraine separatist forces had been supplied from Russia.
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko flagged Ukraine's request for this capacity during a visit to Canada last September, when he mentioned Kiev's need for "sophisticated and state of the art" assistance to help Ukraine "be stronger" defensively.
Liberal MP Chrystia Freeland said the opposition party would unreservedly support providing RADARSAT-2 data to Ukraine. "There is strong cross-party support for Ukraine in Canada. Ukraine is a democracy and fighting for its democracy and its national sovereignty and those are two principles it's really important to uphold."
Paul Grod, president of the Ukrainian Canadian Congress, says the ceasefire is fragile and the lack of commitment to a sealed international border in the conflict area means Russia will have the capacity to funnel through more support to the separatist forces.
"Russia is going to be abradarle to continue to move troops and supplies back and forth," Mr. Grod said. "Now with this satellite information at least Ukrainians will be able to see it and take effective action where they can."
He said it's imperative Canada and its allies do even more to prevent Russia from solidifying a separate state in Ukraine's Donbass region.
"An open border will allow Russia to build a powerful military Donbass statelet populated by Russian and Donbass fighters, equipped with modern weapons," Mr. Grod said. "It is critical that Canada, the U.S. and their European allies provide Ukraine with defensive military equipment, training and reconnaissance capabilities that are ready to deploy at the first instance of a ceasefire breakdown and a new Russian offensive."
Defence Minister Jason Kenney said this week Canada would be willing to provide training to Ukrainian troops should the need arise and if there's a consensus among allies for greater military support.
Canada, the United States and other NATO allies have to date given only non-lethal military assistance to Ukraine, such as helmets, first-aid kits and communications gear. On Feb. 11, the U.S. announced it would begin training Ukrainian troops in March in western Ukraine.