OTTAWA – Some 200 soldiers from Edmonton are preparing to deploy to Ukraine — though with everyone waiting to see whether the mission there will be extended, exactly how long they will be staying is anyone’s guess.
Canada, Britain and the United States have had military trainers in Ukraine since the summer of 2015, after Russia annexed Crimea and began supporting separatist forces in Ukraine’s Donbass region.
The Canadians have taught about 2,600 Ukrainian troops the basics of soldiering, such as how to use their weapons and move as a unit, plus more advanced skills, such as bomb disposal and medical training.
Ukrainian and Canadian officials say those skills have been desperately needed given the amount of support Russia has provided to the rebels operating in the Donbass.
The conflict in eastern Ukraine has claimed close to 10,000 lives since April 2014, and left tens of thousands without homes and struggling to survive.
But Canada’s training mission is set to expire at the end of March, and in spite of public appeals from the Ukrainian government, the Liberal government has not decided whether to extend it.
Despite the uncertainty, about 200 soldiers from 1st Battalion, Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry are set to leave for Ukraine at the beginning of March — even if it means they only end up staying for a month.
“We are prepared right now to send the next rotation of troops from western Canada to the Ukraine to follow on with the tasks that the previous rotation has been doing,” said Brig.-Gen. Simon Hetherington, commander of the 3rd Canadian Division, under which 1 PPCLI falls.
“I understand that the mandate is being reviewed by our government and we’re prepared to react in any eventuality, whether that means changing our posture in theatre to embrace new tasks or to reduce the number, if that’s what the government asks us to do.”
The Edmonton-based soldiers will relieve their counterparts from 2 PPCLI, based out of Shilo, Man., who have been on the ground training Ukrainian forces near the city of Lviv since August.
The battalion will also be providing the majority of troops for the start of Canada’s mission in Latvia, which is expected to ramp up in the coming months before becoming fully operational in the summer.
Canada has committed to send about 450 troops to lead a multinational NATO force in the Baltic state, which is intended to deter any potential Russian aggression in the region.
Hetherington described the Latvia mission as “a bit of back to the future” since it will be Canada’s largest deployment to Europe since the end of the Cold War.
The Canadians will be joined in Latvia by counterparts from Italy, Spain, Poland, Albania and Slovenia, who Hetherington said will all work hand-in-hand with the Latvians on a daily basis.
“The Latvians will be our peers,” he said.
“This is not building an army. We are not training them.”
With 1 PPCLI also providing about 150 soldiers to Canada’s mission in Iraq, the question remains how the government plans to find another 600 troops to send on a major peacekeeping mission in Africa.
Hetherington acknowledged that with Ukraine, Latvia and Iraq on his plate, he is “rounds complete,” meaning he doesn’t have much more to spare.
But he was confident the military would be able to find enough troops from other places to be able to participate in a peacekeeping mission, if and when the government pulls the trigger.
“It will depend on the task,” Hetherington said.
“If push comes to shove, we can all get out the door and do what we need to do tomorrow.… If you look back to the Afghan days where at any one time we could have had upwards of 3,500, and we kept going through that.”
The 3rd Canadian Division is responsible for all army administration and operations in western Canada and is headquartered in Edmonton. The division has approximately 5,500 Regular Force soldiers, 4,600 Primary Reserve Force soldiers, 1,200 civilian employees and 900 Canadian Rangers.