KYIV, Ukraine – It will be the middle of summer at the earliest before the Canadian military fields its military training mission to Ukraine, which is likely to play out against a backdrop of escalating violence in breakaway eastern regions.
Canadian soldiers will also hit the ground just as the Harper government prepares to do electoral battle on the campaign trail at home in advance of an Oct. 19 vote.
The plan to send 200 troops for nearly two years to help strengthen the Ukrainian Army was announced with much political fanfare in mid-April, yet specifics on how the two-year mission will unfold have yet to be worked out.
A planning team to iron out the plans only arrived recently, and it could very well be August by the time the contingent is in place, a senior defence source said.
Lauren Armstrong, a spokeswoman for Defence Minister Jason Kenney, would only say that “reconnaissance work is ongoing and the training of Ukrainian military personnel will begin later this summer.”
The U.S. and Britain, meanwhile, have their programs up and running at the Yavoriv training centre, in the far western region along the Polish border.
There was no explanation from the Department of National Defence about the delay.
Kenney said in April that the Canadians would be far away from the fighting, which intensified over the weekend in the embattled Donetsk and Mariupol regions.
The U.S.-led training regime takes presumably battle-hardened national guard units off the line where they’ve been fighting Russian-backed separatists and puts them through remedial basic military training.
The plan is to instruct up to six battalions. The U.S. is hoping the program will train more than 700 troops every six months.
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Canadians, according to one published report, could very well be tasked with focusing on strengthening the cadre of non-commissioned officers, who are considered the backbone of western armies.
The intent is to shake the Ukrainians out of the rigid, old Soviet-era Red Army mindset, which relied heavily on officers calling the shots, rather than sergeants and corporals, who are closer to the fighting.
Two officials in the European diplomatic community here, speaking on background, said the Americans and British have been surprised at how “acutely unready” the Ukrainian units are for fighting a war.
The regular army, after years of cuts and neglect, found itself outmatched and out-foxed by separatists at the beginning of the campaign last year, in the aftermath of the Russian annexation of Crimea. That forced the government to reinstate conscription in 2014, deploy national guard units and rely heavily on volunteer battalions, including extreme nationalists.
Many of the national guardsmen were sent to the front with only two months training, and are now being put through three two-month back-to-back courses.
The U.S. explicitly stated this week it would not train volunteer groups such as the notorious Azov Battalion.
The drilling and exercise is taking place against the backdrop of a crumbling ceasefire brokered last winter.
The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, which monitors events in the war-torn regions, reported the presence of heavy weapons in zones along the contested front.
Their presence was in “violation with Minsk withdrawal lines,” referring to the agreement brokered in February with the help of Germany and France.
Shelling has picked up along with ceasefire violations, the OSCE wrote in its latest report, released this week.
“Observers noted the presence of more tanks and heavy artillery being deployed,” the report said. “In one interview with a Ukrainian army commander, anti-tank mines were being pulled out of storage and ready to stitch into the ground.”
The OSCE has complained it’s often obstructed and unwelcome by both sides. It operates drones to monitor the ceasefire and said one of the spy planes was electronically jammed recently as it conducted surveillance 30 kilometres east of the strategic port city of Mariupol.