OTTAWA — A fresh contingent of Canadian troops has arrived in eastern Europe to take part in NATO exercises meant to reassure jittery allies and the deployment follows a spike in violence between Ukrainian forces and Russian-backed separatists.
More than 100 soldiers from the 1st Battalion, the Royal 22e Regiment of Valcartier, Que., will conduct training in Poland and Romania — far from the eastern front lines — and are separate from a U.S-led training mission in western Ukraine.
Senior American officials have expressed “deep concern” about the number of ceasefire violations reported by the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe in breakaway regions of Ukraine.
The Canadian commander, Maj. Eric Beauchamp, says his troops don’t necessarily feel the tension, but they get a clear sense eastern European soldiers are happy to see them.
“Even if we are a small detachment that is going to train with them, they appreciate this and they want the world to know we are there,” he said in a recent interview with The Canadian Press. “Because of the tension, the effect we have here is really tangible and we see it.”
Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan and his parliamentary secretary, Liberal MP John McKay, are in the region this week, meeting officials in Ukraine, Germany and Poland.
The trip is seen as a political reassurance mission on top of the military contribution.
In a conference call from Germany late Wednesday, Sajjan said that Russia’s partial withdrawl from Syria will not mean a softening of Canadian policy — or sanctions imposed in the wake of the annexation of Crimea, which began two years ago Wednesday.
“Our support for Ukraine remains solid,” he said. “I’m hopeful — as I mentioned to my counterparts in Ukraine — that Mr. Putin would make a similar statement about withdrawing troops from Ukraine.”
The war in that part of the world has largely slipped from the headlines in many western countries, replaced by daily accounts of the conflict with the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant.
Russia’s annexation of Crimea was followed a few months later by an uprising in two eastern Ukrainian districts, known as oblasts.
That set off a wave of sanctions from western governments and fears among eastern European countries that Russian President Vladimir Putin’s ambitions would not stop at the Ukraine border. Many of those countries are new members of NATO, who would demand help should their territory be violated.
Last year, the U.S.-based Pew Research Centre conducted an exhaustive public opinion study among the military alliance’s member nations.
While many see Russia as a military threat, there is a general reluctance to send military aid to Ukraine. Even more significant, the study found at least half of Germans, French and Italians say their country should not use military force to defend a NATO ally attacked by Russia.
“Americans and Canadians are the only publics where more than half think their country should use military action if Russia attacks a fellow NATO member (56 per cent and 53 per cent respectively),” said the study published on June 10, 2015.
The report also said that NATO members were more receptive to sending economic, rather military aid to Ukraine.
Sajjan said the issue of sending lethal aid to Ukraine did not come up in his meetings with officials.