Canada has no plans to send additional troops to Ukraine amid its escalating border crisis with Russia, as the head of the Canadian military acknowledged worries that an expanded NATO presence in Ukraine could provoke, rather than deter, Russian President Vladimir Putin.
There are widespread fears that Mr. Putin may be considering wider military action against Russia’s neighbour, which Moscow has been trying to wrest back into its orbit since a pro-Western revolution in Kyiv seven years ago. Russia has amassed an invasion-sized force near its borders with Ukraine for the second time this year.
The Globe and Mail reported last week that Canada was considering a show of support for Ukraine in the crisis, possibly by sending additional troops to bolster the 200-soldier Operation Unifier training mission, or by sailing a warship into the Black Sea.
However, Chief of Defence Staff Wayne Eyre said during a Thursday visit to Kyiv that he was concerned that any new military backing for Ukraine could inflame the situation. Mr. Putin recently stated that any expansion of the U.S.-led North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s presence in the country would cross a “red line” for Russia, which considers Ukraine to be part of its so-called “sphere of influence.”
“In a case like this, diplomacy has to lead. We’ve got to be very careful,” Gen. Eyre said in an interview with The Globe before a day of meetings with his Ukrainian counterparts. “What we’re doing with Operation Unifier … shows long-term commitment [to Ukraine]. But we’ve got to be very careful about the balance between deterrence and escalation, and what is the perception from the other side as well. That’s where diplomacy absolutely has to lead in a case like this.”
Canada also has 540 troops deployed to Latvia, another neighbour of Russia, where it leads a multinational battle group tasked with deterring any hostile moves against the tiny Baltic country. Latvia, unlike Ukraine, is a member of the NATO alliance.
Asked whether Canada’s reluctance to send additional troops to Ukraine meant that Mr. Putin’s warnings were being taken seriously, Gen. Eyre replied “you’ve always got to take potential adversaries seriously. Wars have started because of potential miscalculations before, throughout history.”
Canada is not alone in hoping diplomacy can deter Russia, which, according to the Ukrainian Foreign Ministry, has amassed around 115,000 troops – backed by “tanks, artillery, electronic warfare systems, air and naval units” – along its borders with Ukraine, including in the occupied Crimean Peninsula. At the start of a Thursday meeting in Stockholm, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken told Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov that “diplomacy is the only responsible way to resolve this crisis, and we stand fully ready to support it.”
But the two men ended their meeting after just 30 minutes, with no indication that any substantive agreements had been reached.
Russia seized and annexed Crimea after the 2014 revolution in Kyiv, and a Moscow-backed militia has battled the Ukrainian army in the southeastern Donbas region since then. The latter conflict has killed more than 13,000 people on both sides.
Mr. Blinken called on Russia to “respect Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity to de-escalate” by pulling its military back from the border. He warned his Russian counterpart that the U.S. and its allies would impose harsh new economic penalties on Moscow if it took military action against Ukraine.
The Kremlin argues that it is not provoking the crisis. Russian officials say their military buildup is necessary because they believe Ukraine may be preparing to try to retake the Donbas region by force, something the government of President Volodymyr Zelensky has repeatedly denied. Denis Pushilin, the head of the unrecognized Donetsk People’s Republic, said his government could ask Moscow for military assistance in the event of a Ukrainian assault.
Videos posted by social-media users on Thursday appeared to show heavy weapons fire erupting along the frontline in Donbas shortly after Mr. Blinken and Mr. Lavrov ended their meeting on the sidelines of a conference of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe.
The main concession Moscow is seeking from the crisis is a guarantee that NATO – which has expanded to include much of Eastern Europe in the three decades since the end of the Cold War – won’t invite Ukraine to join the alliance, or deploy any offensive weaponry into the country. But NATO and the Ukrainian government have countered that Russia cannot have a veto over whether the country is invited to join the 30-country alliance.
Mr. Lavrov warned that such an approach would lead to confrontation. “I want to make it crystal clear: turning our neighbours into a bridgehead for confrontation with Russia, the deployment of NATO forces in the regions strategically important for our security is categorically unacceptable,” he told OSCE foreign ministers ahead of his meeting with Mr. Blinken. “Long-term and legally binding security guarantees,” about the limits of NATO expansion were “imperative to prevent sliding into a confrontational scenario,” he said.
In a statement sent to The Globe, Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said Ukraine welcomed the efforts of other countries to mediate, but “there must be no agreements made on Ukraine without Ukraine.” He added that Ukraine stood ready to fight “should Moscow decide to launch a new wave of aggression,” and that Ukraine’s military was far better prepared than in 2014, when Russia seized Crimea without a fight.
Anatoliy Hrytsenko, an independent Ukrainian MP and former defence minister, said that while he was skeptical that Mr. Putin intended to order a full-scale invasion, the Russian leader was probing to see how far the West would let him go.
“He is intimidating the West, which is not ready to fight, neither for itself nor for Ukraine,” Mr. Hrytsenko told The Globe this week. “Putin … will continue to intimidate until he encounters strength and a real readiness to counter with force in the event of aggression.”
Gen. Eyre, whose visit to Kyiv coincided with the 30th anniversary of Canada’s recognition of Ukraine’s declaration of independence from the Soviet Union, said Canada was not backing away from its support of the country.
“I’m here. We’ve got 200-plus troops that are here – one of the largest, if not the largest foreign training missions here. Ukraine is our number one recipient of our military co-operation training program. So, on balance, it’s a pretty strong show of support.”
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Mr. Zelensky were also due to speak by phone on Thursday to mark the anniversary of Canada’s becoming the second country in the world, after Poland, to recognize the fledgling Ukrainian state.
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