Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Canada is “moving forward” on changes to regulations that will allow the sale of automatic weapons and heavier military equipment to Ukraine, where Russian-backed fighters are in the midst of a conflict in the country’s east.
Speaking alongside Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko in Toronto on Friday, Trudeau said Canada is considering adding Ukraine to a list of allies that are eligible for exports of heavy weapons, in the first official indication that the Liberal government is considering advanced military exports to the ex-soviet state.
“Absolutely,” Trudeau said in response to a question from VICE News on a potential shift in arms control plans. “We very much looking at the AFCCL [Automatic Firearms Country Control List] mechanism, that’s something we’re moving forward on.”
“We continue to stand with Ukraine against the illegal and illegitimate incursion by Russia into Ukrainian territory.”
Trudeau did not directly respond to a question from VICE News about whether there were human rights concerns over allowing heavy weapons exports to Ukraine.
Human Rights Watch blasted Kyiv last week for the torture of a Ukrainian citizen, allegedly at the hands of that country’s secret service.
“There is a process in place and a series of criteria that have to be reached but it is something we’re working on,” Trudeau said of future arms deals. Countries on the list are generally allies of Canada with relatively good human rights records.
“We continue to stand with Ukraine against the illegal and illegitimate incursion by Russia into Ukrainian territory,” Trudeau said. Ukraine has done a “very strong job” in advancing reforms, he added.
Poroshenko, for his part, lauded Canada’s past, non-lethal, aid to Ukraine. He said Canada could provide insight on peacekeeping operations in its occupied regions, as there is presently a “unique chance” for a lasting ceasefire in Eastern Ukraine.
Canada has, thus far, only provided non-lethal aid and training to the Ukrainian military. Ottawa initially provided advanced satellite imagery to Kyiv of the occupied territory in Eastern Ukraine, but cut off that cooperation over fears Ukraine was using the intelligence to conduct attacks.
Under Canadian export law, arms manufacturers can only export certain types of weaponry — including fully automatic weapons and high-capacity magazines — to countries on the Automatic Firearms Country Control List. There are currently 39 countries on that list, and Ukraine isn’t one of them.
In July 2015, the Conservative government asked for input on adding Ukraine to that list. They were defeated voted out of office that October, and the idea appeared to have been shelved.
This past April, however, Canadian Defence Minister Harjit Singh Sajjan met with his Ukrainian counterpart, Stepan Poltorak, to sign a mutual defence cooperation agreement. That deal will pave the way for more cooperation when it comes to “defence policy; defence research, development, and production; and military education,” according to a Canadian government statement.
As it stands, Canada is sending little in terms of weaponry to Kyiv.
Data from 2016 shows Canada approved just eight permits for weapons exports to Ukraine, for a total value of just over $160,000 — mostly for small arms. One permit application to ship firearms was denied that year, with Ottawa citing “regional conflict” as the reason.
The two leaders met amid conversations about the future of eastern Ukraine, which has seen renewed fighting in recent weeks.
Poroshenko is in town to cheer for Ukraine’s team in the Invictus Games, a sports competition for wounded veterans.
The Ukranian leader said he is open to the idea of having UN peacekeepers patrolling the Donetsk region, parts of which remain under occupation by Moscow-backed rebels.
Russian President Vladimir Putin appeared to support that prospect earlier this month.
“I believe that the presence of UN peacekeepers… is quite appropriate and I do not see anything wrong with that,” Putin said during a visit to China. “On the contrary, I believe that this would help resolve the situation in southeastern Ukraine.”
While Ottawa continues to consider increased arms sales, the White House announced this week it would forge closer defence ties between the United States and Ukraine. Previously, President Barack Obama had vetoed lethal aid to Ukraine. Trump, however, signalled on Wednesday that military aid was back on the table for Kyiv.