Ottawa is poised to extend a military training mission in Ukraine for another six months and is mulling whether to expand the number of soldier-trainers deployed and provide Kyiv with defensive weapons and gear, two government sources say.
Measures under consideration by the Liberal cabinet include small arms as well as night goggles, helmets, armoured vests and military radios for Ukraine’s armed forces. Also on the table is providing intelligence and cybersecurity advice, likely through Canada’s signal intelligence agency known as the Communications Security Establishment.
And Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Wednesday that Ottawa is also drawing up a list of economic sanctions that would be imposed on Moscow if Russia launches a military offensive against Ukraine.
“We are working with our international partners and colleagues to make it very, very clear that Russian aggression is absolutely unacceptable,” Mr. Trudeau told reporters. “We are standing there with diplomatic responses, with sanctions, with a full court press to ensure Russia respects the people of Ukraine.”
The sources said Canada is talking to the United States, Britain and other countries about punishing economic sanctions, which President Joe Biden said Wednesday would severely hurt Russia’s financial system.
“If they invade, they’re going to pay. Their banks will not be able to deal in dollars,” Mr. Biden told a news conference at the White House.
The President said “my guess” is Russia will invade Eastern Ukraine but warned it’ll also pay a heavy price in loss of life.
A Canadian response to the Ukraine crisis is being developed as Foreign Affairs Minister Mélanie Joly wraps up a fact-finding trip to Kyiv and Europe this week.
On Tuesday, Mr. Trudeau convened a special cabinet meeting of select ministers and officials to discuss the range of options under consideration.
These include increasing the contingent of Canadian military soldier-trainers above the current 200; sending lethal and non-lethal military hardware to Ukraine; and economic sanctions, according to two officials. The Globe and Mail is not identifying the officials because they were not authorized to discuss cabinet deliberations.
Ukraine has asked Canada to follow Britain’s lead and rush deliveries of short-range anti-tank missiles, purchased with a £2-billion loan from the British government. The Canadian government sources said Ottawa is not prepared to provide that type of offensive weapon.
One of the sources cautioned that no decisions on assistance were taken Tuesday night but an announcement on extending the military training mission and package of measures, such as small arms weapons, to help Ukraine are expected next week. The training mission is currently slated to end in March.
Officials would also not discuss how many more soldiers Ottawa may end up sending to Ukraine as part of the renewal of the military training mission, called Operation Unifier.
On Wednesday, the Royal Canadian Navy frigate HMCS Montreal set sail for the Mediterranean and Black Sea region near Russia for a six-month deployment as part of Canada’s commitments to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization alliance.
Ihor Michalchyshyn, executive director of the Ukrainian Canadian Congress, said the measures being debated at cabinet need an urgent decision.
“Giving Ukraine assistance now, as opposed to later, will help change Russia’s calculations for invasion scenarios,” he said.
Mr. Michalchyshyn said it’s in Canada’s national interest to help deter Russian aggression in Eastern Europe.
“If a country that also happens to be on our northern border happens to invade its neighbour with 150,000 troops, it’s not unreasonable that they might one day press their interests in the Canadian Arctic,” he said.
Canada is home to more than 1.4 million people of Ukrainian origin: the largest community in the world after Russia outside Ukraine.
Mr. Michalchyshyn noted however that Canada is lagging behind American and European allies in sanctions applied to Russian officials over interference in Ukraine.
Mr. Michalchyshyn said former commanders of the Canadian training mission in Ukraine have told him that it’s a very useful learning exercise for Canada to become familiar with the hybrid warfare tactics Russia is employing.
The key players in Tuesday’s cabinet discussions on Ukraine were Chief of the Defence Staff General Wayne Eyre as well as Ms. Joly, Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland, Defence Minister Anita Anand and Clerk of the Privy Council Janice Charette.
Ms. Freeland, a strong critic of the Vladimir Putin regime and whose mother helped draft Ukraine’s constitution, has played a significant role in the cabinet discussions, particularly on the sanctions in her role as Finance Minister, the sources say. Russia imposed a travel ban on Ms. Freeland in 2014 for her role in hitting Moscow with sanctions for its invasion and annexation of the Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea.
Russia is already in open conflict with Ukraine. Russian-backed militants seized a chunk of heavily industrialized Eastern Ukraine eight years ago – helping cripple the country’s economic capacity – and have been fighting Kyiv’s forces there since.
Ottawa has committed roughly $700-million in assistance to Ukraine since January, 2014, including the provision of non-lethal military equipment, such as winter tents and clothing, and sending rotations of 200 Canadian Armed Forces troops every six months to train Ukrainian security forces.
The Canadian soldier-trainers are headquartered in Kyiv but operate in 13 locations around Ukraine including Mykolaiv in the southern part of the country. The training the Canadian Forces is engaged in includes: sniper skills, medical treatment, artillery and engineering, according to spokesperson Lieutenant-Commander Julie McDonald with Canadian Joint Operations Command Headquarters.
Paul Grod, president of the Ukrainian World Congress, said it’s important to remember Russia has already invaded Ukraine. “Right now we’re talking about risk of a further invasion. Ukraine has already been invaded and occupied and there is an ongoing war,” he said.
Western allies should make it clear that if Russia does not withdraw its support for militants in Eastern Ukraine that there will be further countermeasures “and not just the status quo” there, he said.
On a visit to Kyiv on Wednesday, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said a Russian attack on Ukraine could occur on “very short notice,” though he vowed to pursue a diplomatic resolution for as long as possible.
But Mr. Blinken, who is scheduled to meet Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov on Friday in the Swiss city of Geneva to discuss the crisis, said he would not be giving Mr. Lavrov a written response to Russian security proposals that Moscow published as “draft treaties” last month.
The Kremlin has said it expects a written reply to its proposals, which include a call for the U.S. to guarantee that Ukraine will never be allowed to join the NATO military alliance, and for NATO to pull back its forces stationed in Eastern Europe.
Speaking at a press conference alongside Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, Mr. Blinken described Russia’s demands as “non-starters.”
There were mixed messages from Moscow on Wednesday, as deputy foreign minister Sergei Ryabkov told a reporter from CNN that his country had no plans to invade Ukraine. But other Russian officials continued to suggest that some kind of escalation was imminent.
“There arrives a moment of truth when the West either accepts our proposals or other ways will be found to safeguard Russia’s security,” Konstantin Gavrilov, the head of Russia’s arms-control negotiating team, told the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe. “We are running out of time. The countdown begins.”
NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh said Tuesday that he was not in favour of arming Ukrainian troops, saying targeted sanctions were a better option.
Heather McPherson, the NDP’s foreign-affairs critic, said the party would like to see Ottawa and its Western allies begin to impose some sanction as a warning to President Vladimir Putin.
“Nobody wants war,” she said. “Our priority should be using economic and diplomatic sanctions to de-escalate the situation and deter Russia from further aggression.”
With reports from Nathan VanderKlippe
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