OTTAWA – The Liberal government on Monday extended its military training mission in Ukraine, amid warnings Russia could attempt to “destabilize” Canada’s political system.
But while largely welcomed by the Ukrainian government, the extension is being criticized by the Opposition for not going far enough in helping deal with a new outbreak of violence in the country.
Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan and Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland said Canadian military trainers will remain in Ukraine until at least March 2019.
Canada has had about 200 trainers in the eastern European country since the summer of 2015, where they have taught about 3,200 Ukrainian troops the basics of soldiering as well as some advanced skills.
But the mission, which began after Russia annexed Crimea and began supporting separatist forces in Ukraine’s Donbass region, had been set to expire at the end of this month.
Sajjan said the extension was intended to show Canada’s unwavering commitment to Ukraine, while sending “a very strong message” to Russia that its actions will not be tolerated.
“It is Russia’s actions that have caused us to do this,” Sajjan said during a news conference with Freeland outside the House of Commons, where the two ministers were flanked by more than a dozen Liberal MPs.
“Crimea, Ukraine and some of the other actions that they have taken. So that’s something we always have to put into context. It is their actions that are making us to respond in this manner.”
At one point, Freeland suggested those actions could also include trying to interfere in or “destabilize” Canada’s political system as Russia is accused of having done in the United States.
“There have been efforts, as U.S. intelligence forces have said, by Russia to destabilize the U.S. political system,” she said, referring to allegations the Kremlin tried to influence last year’s presidential election.
“I think that Canadians, and indeed other western countries, should be prepared for similar efforts to be directed at us.”
Monday’s announcement was highly anticipated after Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko publicly appealed for an extension when Prime Minister Justin Trudeau visited Kyiv last July.
Ukrainian Ambassador Andriy Shevchenko said his country is grateful for Canada’s continued support, particularly after the worst outbreak of violence in eastern Ukraine since 2015.
Dozens of soldiers and civilians were killed in the region in February, raising fears that what had already been a tenuous ceasefire between the Ukrainian government in Kyiv and Russian-backed rebels was dead.
Nearly 10,000 people have been killed since fighting erupted in April 2014, and hundreds of thousands more have been forced from their homes.
“We welcome this news with great gratitude to the Canadian people and with hope that this will bring more security both for Ukraine and Canada,” Shevchenko said.
“To Ukrainians, it’s a sign of solidarity. To Russia, it’s a very strong signal of deterrence. And to the world, I think it’s a very powerful message of global leadership in dealing with global threats and global issues.”
But Shevchenko said his country still needs assistance in other areas, particularly “lethal aid” such as anti-tank weapons as well as satellite imagery to track rebel and Russian troop movements.
Ukraine has been pressing for such lethal aid for years, but the ambassador said the recent fighting “really shows that we need these weapons just as bad as we needed them in the beginning of the war.”
Canada, meanwhile, did provide satellite imagery under the previous Conservative government, but the Liberals stopped the practice when they came to power.
Conservative foreign affairs critic Peter Kent criticized the Liberals’ “bare-bones” mission extension, saying it fell far short of what was needed, given the new surge in violence.
That includes a resumption in the sharing of satellite imagery and the provision of weapons, which the Tories also refused to provide but which Kent said is now necessary, given the uptick in fighting.
“Our worst concerns have been realized today with a bare-bones extension of Operation Unifier, which doesn’t recognize the very changed situation in eastern Ukraine,” he said. “We are disappointed.”
Russian Embassy spokesman Kirill Kalinin, meanwhile, released a statement describing the extension as “counterproductive” and calling on Canada to pressure Ukraine to sue for peace with the rebels.