Soldiers from Canada and other NATO countries will take part in joint exercises with the Ukrainian army this month that are likely to further fuel suspicions between Moscow and the West.
A total of 1,300 soldiers will take part in the 10-day drills, which begin on Sept. 16 at the Yavoriv training centre, near the western Ukrainian city of Lviv. The Pentagon said the United States will contribute 200 soldiers to the exercise, which is code-named Rapid Trident. It wasn't clear Wednesday how many Canadian troops would take part.
A press statement from the U.S. Army's European Command, which is leading the exercises, said Germany, Britain, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Bulgaria, Romania and Spain would also contribute troops, as well as Georgia, Moldova and Azerbaijan, which are not members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.
Though the exercises have taken place annually since 2006 under the auspices of NATO's Partnership for Peace program, this will be the first time that NATO troops have set foot in Ukraine since the country first fell into a succession of crises late last year. The past six months have seen the ousting of the Moscow-backed government of Viktor Yanukovych, and Russia's subsequent annexation of Crimea and support for separatist rebels in the southeast of the country.
Rapid Trident is billed as a "peacekeeping exercise," and will focus on improving interoperability between the various countries' armies, as well as training in convoy operations and countering improvised explosive devices. No live ammunition will be fired, the U.S. European Command said.
The drill was originally supposed to take place in July, but was delayed as fighting roared in the east of Ukraine between government forces and Russian-backed rebels. NATO officials say the drill will go ahead this time, despite the ongoing fighting in the other end of the country, and the mounting evidence of direct Russian involvement there.
A NATO official told The Globe and Mail ahead of a summit that begins Thursday in Wales that the alliance believes that there are now at least 3,000 regular Russian troops fighting inside Ukraine, accompanied by more than 100 battle tanks.
The Wales meeting – which will be attended by Prime Minister Stephen Harper and the leaders of the other 27 NATO states – will focus on defining the alliance's response to a newly bellicose Russia. The creation of a new rapid deployment force of several thousand troops will be announced, as well as the establishment of several new temporary bases in Eastern Europe and Turkey.
Russia, for its part, accuses NATO of deliberately stirring up tensions in Ukraine. Mikhail Popov, the deputy secretary of Russia's National Security Council, said Tuesday that Moscow would soon draw up a new military doctrine, in response to "the desire of U.S. and NATO leaders to continue their policy of aggravating tensions with Russia."
General Yury Yakubov, a senior official in Russia's Defence Ministry, said Wednesday that he hoped to see the new military doctrine – which will update a 2010 document – explicitly name the United States and NATO as Russia's enemies.
He also called for Russia to abandon its policy of only using its nuclear arsenal as a defensive tool, and to lay out the circumstances under which they could be used pre-emptively.
"In my view, our primary enemy is the U.S. and the North Atlantic bloc," the Interfax news service quoted Gen. Yakubov as saying. "It is necessary to hash out the conditions under which Russia could carry out a pre-emptive strike with the Russian Strategic Rocket Forces."