Government eases restrictions on Canadian military mission in Ukraine

OTTAWA — The military has quietly expanded its footprint in Ukraine, giving commanders free rein to send their troops anywhere — except where they might run into Russian forces or separatist rebels.

Canada first deployed about 200 troops to Ukraine in the summer of 2015 to help train government forces in their fight against Russian-backed separatists in the eastern part of the country.

But the Canadians were required to stay in the western half of Ukraine, far from the conflict that has continued to rage over the intervening two years, leaving more than 10,000 people dead.

Those restrictions were eased in March when the government extended the mission for another two years, the mission’s commander, Lt.-Col. Mark Lubiniecki, said in an interview Wednesday.

While Canadian troops are still required to stay away from the border with Russia and the fighting in eastern Ukraine, he said, the rest of the country is now fair game.

The change, Lubiniecki added, has given welcome flexibility to the Canadian mission, which has so far trained nearly 4,500 Ukrainian troops, many of whom have since been sent into the conflict zone.

The number of Canadian soldiers in Ukraine remains the same.

Lubiniecki would not reveal how far his troops have to stay from the Russian border, except to say that it is far enough away to keep them safe and prevent anyone from misinterpreting they they are in Ukraine.

“We’re here to provide mentorship and training, we’re not here to be operating on the front line,” he said. “So making sure we maintain that buffer is extremely important for us.”

The training mission is set to expire in 2019.

The UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights released a report this week on the conflict in eastern Ukraine, asserting that an end to the three-year-old war was nowhere to be seen.

Fighting continues to erupt despite the existence of a ceasefire, while more than 1.6 million people have been forced to flee their homes and another 3 million are struggling to make ends meet.

Canada’s presence in eastern Europe is actually set to expand over the next few months, as about 450 troops arrive in Latvia to lead a NATO force that will serve as a check on Russian aggression.

One of the concerns trumpeted by both Canadian and Latvian officials is that Russia, or at least pro-Russian agitators, will attempt to spread lies and false information about the mission there.

But Lubiniecki said his troops in Ukraine have so far been spared from any such information attacks, saying: “I’m just not seeing it (on the ground) right now.”

That applies to cyberattacks, as well.

Moscow and its separatist allies in eastern Ukraine aren’t the only threats that Kyiv is struggling to address: corruption is also one of several significant problems.

The Ukrainian military and its defence sector have not been spared, as outlined in recent months by various media reports as well as investigations by NGOs such as Transparency International.

Much of the concern has focused on whether Ukrainian government officials have been enriching themselves by skimming defence contracts or diverting equipment donated by countries like Canada.

Transparency International released a report last month saying improvements have been made, but more needs to be done to ensure foreign donations get to the Ukrainian troops who actually need it.

Canada has so far provided about $16 million in non-lethal equipment such as helmets, bulletproof vests and winter clothing to the Ukrainian military, and promised another $7.25 million by 2019.

Lubiniecki said he has not seen any evidence of corruption during his time in the country, and that the Ukrainian soldiers his troops are training are well equipped and motivated.

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