In an exclusive interview with The Canadian Press, Lieutenant-Colonel Luc-Frédéric Gilbert said he and others were closely monitoring diplomats’ efforts to avert a possible war following the deployment of 100,000 Russian troops to the border. with Ukraine.
We are monitoring the situation, we are looking at the escalation, of course, Gilbert said. But at the moment there is no impact on the mission and there is no impact on our members. We are keeping an eye on this, but the situation does not affect our daily activities.
Lieutenant-Colonel Gilbert commands a contingent of approximately 200 unarmed Canadian soldiers to train their Ukrainian counterparts in everything from basic soldiering to advanced engineering and medical skills.
Known as Operation Unifier, the training mission was first launched in 2015 in response to Russia’s capture of Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula the previous year, as well as its support for separatist forces in the east of the country.
Canada is not alone; Not only did Lieutenant General Gilbert have a handful of Swedes and Danes under his command, but the United States and Great Britain also played a major role in the professionalization of the Ukrainian army.
More than six years later, Canada has helped train approximately 33,000 Ukrainian soldiers. However, Crimea remains under Russian control as the conflict in eastern Ukraine continues to rage, with more than 13,000 lives lost so far.
And now the sudden build-up of Russian forces along Ukraine’s eastern border and Moscow’s demands onNATO, which the military alliance flatly rejected, led to genuine fears and warnings of a new war in Europe.
The threat seems very real
Canadian soldiers under the command of Mr. Gilbert are currently deployed in 13 different locations in Ukraine. However, the mission commander said they were all on the west side of the Dnieper River, which cuts the country almost in two.
” We operate on military bases, mainly in the center and west of the country. We have nothing east of [fleuve] Dnieper. “
While that means Canadian soldiers won’t be on the front line if Russian forces start crossing the Ukrainian border, it probably won’t take long for them to come face-to-face with invading Russian troops and tanks.
This threat appears to be very real after separate talks between Russia and the United States, theNATO and Ukraine this week have resulted in no progress towards de-escalating the current crisis.
Among the Russian demands is that theNATO and other Western European allies withdraw troops from Ukraine and other Eastern European countries that joined the military alliance after the fall of the Soviet Union.
In addition to 200 military trainers in Ukraine, Canada also has about 540 soldiers in Latvia leading a battle group from theNATO which includes troops from nine other countries. The battle group was created in June 2017 in response to Russian aggression in the region.
Neither Mr. Gilbert nor the Ministry of Defense would comment on the contingency plans put in place to protect Canadian soldiers in the event of a Russian invasion. They also wouldn’t say how the Canadian contingent would react to a Russian invasion.
The Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) does not release contingency planning details for operational security reasons, Defense Ministry spokesman Daniel Le Bouthillier said in a statement.
” The well-being and safety of our CAF personnel is our number one priority, and we continue to closely monitor the situation in Ukraine and work with our allies and partners to help Ukraine remain sovereign, secure, and stable. “
Mission virtually unchanged
Mr. Gilbert instead pointed out that the training mission has remained virtually unchanged for a month or more, with no signs of slowing down. This is despite the threat posed by Russia and the government only approving Operation Unifier until the end of March.
The Liberals have faced growing calls to extend and even expand the mission, which has already been extended several times since its inception, and there is little reason to believe it will not be renewed, despite objections from Russia.
We would be very surprised and disappointed if Unifier was not renewed, said Ihor Michalchyshyn, General Manager of the Ukrainian Canadian Congress. It has become an emblem of Canada’s military security and defense relationship [avec l’Ukraine].
On Thursday, Federal Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole called on the government to immediately extend and expand the mission, alongside a number of other requests, to bolster Canada’s support for Ukraine.
History shows that capitulation to the aggression of the President [russe Vladimir] Putin in Eastern Europe has only intensified Russia’s military action , Mr. O’Toole said in a statement.
” To stop President Putin, Canada must stand firm and stand with Ukraine and its other Eastern European allies. “
Have far-right activists been trained by Canada?
While Ottawa and Kyiv have both touted Operation Unifier as a key contributor to Ukraine’s security and sovereignty, the mission has come under the microscope for allegedly helping train far-right activists in this Eastern European country.
A report from George Washington University in the US capital in October found that Centuria members had accessed training from Canada, among other countries in theNATO, and had taken part in joint military exercises.
Centuria is a group that has ties to far-right movements, worships Nazi figures, and aims to protect what it calls
ethnic identity of Europe, according to the report of the Institute for European, Russian and Eurasian Studies.
The Department of Defense said Canada relied on the Ukrainian government to control its security forces, but promised a review.
While some experts expressed skepticism about Canada’s response, Gilbert said he had given direct orders to his troops to halt all training activities if they became aware of the presence of some Ukrainian members with links to far-right groups.
Therefore, we don’t train them, period, he said. And I’m extremely serious about it.