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Canada Is Sending 200 Soldiers to Ukraine to Train Troops for Russian Conflict

Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced a new training mission as Kiev keeps asking for real guns.
15 April 2015, 5:00am

Canadian troops pushing supplies for Ukraine in November 2014. Photo via Canadian government

This post originally appeared on VICE Canada.

Two hundred Canadian soldiers will be heading to Ukraine to build that country's capacity to defend itself from Russia as Ottawa prepares for a massive military operation to bump up against Russian President Vladimir Putin's landgrab in Ukraine.

Tuesday's announcement puts Canada more squarely in the mix of the Cold War-esque conflict in Eastern Europe, while trying to project force against Russia in its own back yard.

Minister of Defence Jason Kenney said directly on Tuesday that a "higher tempo" of Russian planes entering Canada's Arctic has been a part of the ongoing dispute between Moscow and the West.

As early as December 8, 2014, NORAD confirmed to VICE Canada that Russian long-range bombers flew into the US and Canadian Air Defense Identification Zones (ADIZ).

"CF-18 fighters intercepted and visually identified two Russian Tu-95 'Bear' long-range bombers flying in international airspace northwest of Anchorage and into the Beaufort Sea off Canada's coast," said a spokesperson for NORAD.

Increased Russian traffic in Canada's North is being complemented by a growing Canadian presence on Russian President Vladimir Putin's doorstep.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper released details of the mission on Tuesday morning, flanked by Kenney, Chief of Defence Staff General Tom Lawson, and representatives of the Ukrainian government.

Kenney said the announcement was directly "in the wake of Vladimir Putin's belligerence in Ukraine."

The release provided to VICE details that the training will involve "explosive ordinance disposal and improvised explosive device disposal training, military police training, medical training, flight safety training, and logistics system modernization training."

The mission is expected to go until March 31, 2017, which suggests that Ottawa sees the conflict with the Kremlin as remaining unresolved in the long-term. It also bodes well for Harper's commitment to establish permanent NATO bases in Eastern Europe as a deterrent for any potential Russian aggression to countries like Poland.

The whole training mission is expected to cost up to $16 million in 2015-2016, and roughly the same in the following year.

Most of the training will be going to the Ukrainian National Guard and the Ukrainian Army and will be done in conjunction with the United States and United Kingdom.

Logistics will involve Canadian forces helping to build capacity to move supplies and weapons across the tumultuous Eastern part of the country.

"It is not an easy task in any country, let alone when that country finds itself in conflict," Lawson said.

Flight safety training is an obvious need, as Kiev is currently hobbled by a rapidly dwindling fleet of aircraft.

Canada will be taking the lead on military police training, as the United Kingdom and the United States will be driving other parts of the mission.

The training continues Ottawa's commitment to non-lethal aid to Ukraine. Most of the equipment sent thus far includes items like sleeping bags, helmets, and flak vests.

As part of the expanded mission, the Canadian Armed Forces will also be training Ukrainian National Guard personnel in "individual and unit tactics."

Ukraine has been pressuring its allies, including Canada and the United States, to contribute real military equipment to help its army against President Vladimir Putin's encroachment and Moscow-backed separatists trying to establish Russian satellite states in the Eastern part of the country.

"We are leaving that option on the table," Kenney told reporters after the prime minister's announcement—which was closed to reporters, and questions were forbidden.

Kenney confirmed that Kiev requested weaponry, but he says that meetings between Harper, President Barack Obama, UK Prime Minister David Cameron, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel concluded that NATO members should not be kicking in kinetic weaponry.

Canada has, however, been providing satellite imagery of the disputed eastern part of the country.

"There are separatists who are being well supported by the Russian military that we're watching in action in the eastern part of Ukraine," Lawson said.

Concerns have been raised about Operation IMPACT, which involves Canadian Forces personnel training Kurdish fighters to go to war with the Islamic State. There, it's special forces doing the on-the-ground work. The Department of Defence received heat after it was revealed that those forces had traded fire with IS militants.

"We are there not to get involved in combat but to assist our Ukrainian partners to defend themselves and their territorial integrity," Kenney said.

Lawson said there has been no plan to put special forces on the ground in Ukraine.

"I don't expect as we source these troops that we'll be drawing on special ops at all," General Lawson told VICE.

During the briefing, questions were by Ottawa Citizen reporter David Pugliese—Kenney's main tormentor—as to whether Canada had concerned that far-right extremists could benefit from Canada's training mission.

"We've discussed that issue and how we can avoid doing so," Kenney said.

Paramilitary groups like Right Sector, which have earned the moniker of "neo-Nazi," have forged an unholy alliance with Kiev in the mission to beat back a Russian invasion.

To avoid aiding such groups, Kenney said, trainers would only work with "uniformed Ukrainian soldiers" loyal to their government.

This mission is being done on top of other training programs being run by Canada for Ukrainian soldiers, and is separate from Operation REASSURANCE, which has seen hundreds of Canadians operating training missions throughout Europe as a show of force against the Kremlin.

Kenney announced in Tuesday's briefing that REASSURANCE would be expanded, with over 1,000 Canadian personnel deployed to Europe this summer.

"It will be hard not to notice by anyone who's interested in what NATO can bring to bear," Lawson said.

Most of the Canadian personnel—largely members of a mechanized infantry bridge from Canadian Forces Base Petawawa, but also members of the Canadian Air Force—will be conducting the training at the Yavoriv base in western Ukraine.

Kenney called that center "state of the art" and underlined that it couldn't be farther from the conflict zone in eastern Ukraine. Kenney called it at least "a day's drive." As such, he said the risk to Canadian Armed Forces personnel would be "relatively low."

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