Canada would be willing to train Ukrainian troops if there were a consensus among allies for greater military assistance to Kiev, Defence Minister Jason Kenney says.
Pressure on NATO alliance countries to escalate military aid has been growing after nearly a year of fighting between the Ukraine government and Russian-backed rebels in eastern Ukraine. This week both the top Republican and Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee in Washington called for $1-billion (U.S.) in lethal military aid to Ukraine – including training, equipment and weapons.
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 Wednesday, the U.S. announced it would begin training Ukrainian troops in March in western Ukraine.
U.S. President Barack Obama is considering giving weapons to Ukraine's military but wants to see whether a new ceasefire deal might be possible. That position puts him at odds with counterparts in Europe, including the leaders of Germany and France, who oppose giving Kiev weapons. Germany warns that sending Western weapons to Ukraine will only deepen the confrontation, likely causing Russia to escalate its own involvement.
Peace talks were still under way late Wednesday night in Minsk with the leaders of Russia, Ukraine, Germany and France.
The Canadian government, which has already contributed planes and a ship to a NATO reassurance mission aimed at blunting Russian expansionism, says it's willing to consider a range of options for more help to Ukraine – but will only move in concert with allies.
This could include a training and advisory role similar to the one Canada is playing in Iraq.
"If there's a consensus that we could play a role in terms of training, we would be open to doing so," Mr. Kenney said Wednesday.
"But no decision has been taken."
Sources say the Harper government is willing to escalate assistance to Ukraine, but any weaponry Canada might contribute to Kiev would be largely symbolic, because the Canadian military does not have many surplus armaments at its disposal. Any weapons would have to be purchased and such an arrangement would take time.
In reality, sources said, the United States would be the largest source for weapons for Ukraine were allies to reach a consensus on this.
The Ukrainian government has repeatedly asked Ottawa to provide it with lethal military equipment to combat the Russian-backed rebels – a conflict the United Nations estimates has already left more than 5,300 dead.
Ukrainian Canadian Congress president Paul Grod told The Globe and Mail that multiple requests were sent to Canada's Department of National Defence through the Ukrainian embassy in Ottawa during the past six months.
"There have been specific requests – sort of detailed lists – and then sort of more general [requests]," Mr. Grod said.
Canada has already made significant non-lethal donations to Ukraine's military, including 30,000 winter uniforms, he said.
Ukraine's government says it is seeking defensive weapons, such as anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles.
The first delivery of such non-lethal aid arrived at Kiev airport on Nov. 30.
The supplies were handed immediately over to the Ukrainian army. In a slickly produced video, Lenna Koszarny, the head of the Kiev chapter of the Ukrainian Canadian Congress, speaks to troops in the field outfitted in Canadian-donated green uniforms and tells them "this is on behalf of the Canadian government, on behalf of our Prime Minister, Stephen Harper … you can see it's freezing out here and these guys are dressed in the uniforms that were passed on by the Canadian government … Thank you Canada, thank you."
Three ships carrying a second delivery of non-lethal Canadian aid arrived last month in the port of Odessa. That aid is currently being delivered to units near the front line, where Ukrainian troops and militiamen have taken heavy losses in recent days battling a Russian-backed insurgency.
"We've been pushing the Canadian government and I think they've been responding in a very acceptable manner, in terms of what they've been providing. I think the key is to ensure that they're lockstep with the Americans, depending on how things work out [Wednesday] in Minsk," Mr. Grod said.