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Henry M. Robert

Canada’s new relationship with Ukraine:

one step forward, two steps back
1 August, 2016 - 18:12

The government of Justin Trudeau has de facto ended former Prime Minister Harper’s policy of isolating Vladimir Putin. Canadian foreign minister Stephane Dion officially launched his re-engagement with the Kremlin by meeting with Sergei Lavrov and wooing cooperation with Russia on the Arctic and terrorism.

Canada’s new Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, made his first official visit to Ukraine in an effort to demonstrate, in practical terms, that “Canada stands with Ukraine.” Unlike his predecessor, the more restrained Stephen Harper, Trudeau prides himself on his laid back manners, jovial social interaction, and “selfie” spontaneity. In the aftermath of consultations with Barack Obama and Canada’s participation in the NATO Summit in Warsaw, Trudeau’s Ukraine trip was a chance to prove that, notwithstanding his informal ways, his government represented more than simply style over substance. Alas, after the photo ops were complete and the dust settled, a degree of disenchantment began to emerge.

Yes, the visit offered some important symbolic moments. The Canadian PM visited multiple memorials – to the victims of the Nazis at Babyn Yar, Stalin’s Holodomor Famine-Genocide, and the Maidan protests. Canada’s new Liberal government also chose to proceed with the signing of a Canada-Ukraine Free Trade Agreement (CUFTA) – an undertaking initiated by the previous Conservative government of Stephen Harper. Although Canada’s exports to Ukraine only totaled about $210 million in 2015, CUFTA offers a chance for Ukraine to show the world that it is a credible investment partner. At the same time, for the Trudeau government, it is a no-cost move that won’t interfere with its plans to pursue re-engagement with Moscow.

CUFTA does not pose a threat to the left-leaning ideologues within the Liberal Party – a faction within the government’s foreign policy establishment which has always believed that Canada’s foreign-aid priorities lie with Third World countries, rather than Eastern Europe.

According to this approach, if Canada is to have any role in Ukraine, it should be limited to assistance of a non-military nature. Hence, the Trudeau government’s willingness to contribute additional observers to the OSCE monitoring mission in eastern Ukraine and support humanitarian assistance for those displaced by the war in the east.

Sadly, on issues that consolidate the security needs of Ukraine, the new Canadian government is retreating from the track record of the previous government.


The Canadian mission to train Ukrainian troops, known as Operation UNIFIER, began last year, when the Harper government committed 200 soldiers from the Royal Canadian Regiment to support the training of Ukrainian forces in western Ukraine.

Canadian-trained units have gone on to fight on the front lines of the war in eastern Ukraine, where Moscow has been fighting a proxy war in an effort to destabilize Ukraine’s pro-western government. It’s not surprising that the Russian Embassy in Ottawa has been lobbying the Trudeau government to end the Canadian training mission in Ukraine.

In coordination with the US and other countries, the Canadian training mission, which is set to expire in March of next year, is an example of the strong bilateral relationship between Canada and Ukraine. Imagine the glee in Moscow, when they learned that, despite a personal appeal from Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, Prime Minister Trudeau refused to comment on any extension of Operation UNIFIER beyond 2017. The absence of both, Foreign Minister Stephane Dion and Defense Minister Harjit Sajjan, from the Prime Minister’s official delegation was interpreted by some analysts as a signal that Canada’s defense cooperation with Ukraine was weakening.


Canadians continue to be kept in the dark regarding former Prime Minister Jean Chretien’s back room diplomacy vis-a-vis Russia. Long before the Liberals were elected, the former PM suddenly became involved in high-level private discussions involving Ukraine’s future.

The timeline of activities was as follows:

1 On April 20, 2015, Jean Chretien chaired a High-Level Expert Group (HLEG) meeting on Russia-Ukraine at the University of Ottawa.

2 Statements released later, pointed to a troubling script: Chretien was, in fact, proposing to dismantle Ukraine’s current system of government by pushing for the federalization of the country – a scenario that Moscow has been proposing since it began its occupation of Ukraine. To quote Chretien: “… as Canadians we understand well that it is possible to have a central government and regional autonomy, with language and religion guarantees, that work well. I believe this might be one way to help resolve the dispute in Ukraine.”

3 On April 29, 2015, at the 3rd Global Baku Forum, as a member of the Inter Action Council, Chretien appeared in Azerbaijan at a panel discussion featuring former Ukrainian presidents Leonid Kravchuk, Leonid Kuchma, and Viktor Yushchenko. Chretien met with the three leaders individually and talked them into inviting him to meet with Ukraine’s constitutional commission. Ukraine’s three former presidents, who are involved with the drafting of the new Constitution for Ukraine, were allegedly urged by Chretien to federalize Ukraine.

4 On April 30, 2015, the very next day, Jean Chretien secretly met President Vladimir Putin in a private meeting at Putin’s Novo-Ogaryovo residence outside Moscow.

Neither Harper nor Trudeau had received any notice of the trip. Both Putin and Chretien refused to comment on the content of their discussions. Within months, Chretien was criticizing Harper’s foreign policy and demanding that Canada return to being a “peace-seeking, progressive country.”

Last fall, Chretien publicly welcomed Russia’s military intervention in Syria, which has targeted groups opposed to Bashar al-Assad’s brutal regime. With over 9,000 Ukrainians killed and over 20,000 injured, as a result of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, one can imagine the shock that Ukrainians felt when they came across Chretien’s comments in the press: “I met Putin. He’s a tough guy. He’s clear minded. But to run Russia you cannot be a pussycat.”

Military analysts have lamented that the Canadian Forces never fully recovered from Chretien-era cuts, when he gutted military procurement, disbanded the Airborne Regiment and slashed defense spending on the backs of serving members of the Canadian military. And, like Stephane Dion, Chretien’s worldview discourages support for Ukraine’s NATO ambitions.

Chretien’s liberal internationalism, which views the UN as the only player in global security, has left a foreign-policy legacy that Justin Trudeau may be tempted to follow. In the wake of the former Liberal PM’s recent involvement in shuttle diplomacy with Russia, Ukraine’s allies may have reason to worry.


In December of 2014, in an effort to help Ukraine improve its intelligence data on Russia’s rebel proxies in eastern Ukraine, the previous Conservative government had responded to a request from President Poroshenko, and began providing the Ukrainian military access to Canada’s RADARSAT-2.

A troubling development indicating a strong signal of accommodation towards Russia was the recent news that, in May of this year, the Trudeau government suddenly stopped allowing Ukraine to access this satellite imagery.

The decision to cut Ukraine off from Canada’s satellite products, without notice or public explanation, is another example of the Trudeau government’s retreat from the security commitments made by the previous government.


Currently, there are 39 countries on Canada’s so-called Automatic Firearms Country Control List or AFCCL – nations to which Canada can sell automatic firearms. President Petro Poroshenko has been outspoken in his plea to Ottawa, Washington, and other NATO countries to provide Kyiv with advanced weapons to counter Russia’s war in eastern Ukraine.

In June of last year, the Conservative government began to take steps to change Canada’s export rules to allow the sale of automatic guns and armed vehicles to the Ukrainian military. It would have represented an important expansion of the Canadian government’s support for Ukraine.

Following Harper’s election defeat last fall, left-wing activists, such as “Project Ploughshares,” began lobbying the Trudeau government to sign on to the United Nations Arms Trade Treaty. Project Ploughshares’ website has featured links to Kremlin apologists, like former diplomat Christopher Westdal, who regularly criticizes NATO and demands that Canadian Foreign Minister Dion meet with Sergei Lavrov to discuss arrangements for a “Eurasian” security system.

If Canada were to sign the UN’s arms trade treaty, as suggested by these Kremlin apologists, selling arms to allies like Ukraine would become much more difficult.

When asked a question about whether his government is prepared to put Ukraine on the AFCCL list of friendly countries to which Canada can sell munitions, Trudeau refused to provide a response. This unwillingness to take a clear stand on boosting Canada’s military ties to Ukraine is symptomatic of the ill-advised defense priorities which have led to poor strategic choices, such as Trudeau’s decision to withdraw CF-18 fighters used in Canadian combat missions against ISIS targets in Iraq and Syria.

It took a visit from Barack Obama to Ottawa to put public and private pressure on Trudeau to live up to Canada’s commitments to NATO. This resulted in the request that Canada deploy a framework battalion to Latvia, as part of NATO’s multilateral effort to deter Russian aggression.

Yet there continues to be a major disconnect between the realities that threaten Western security and Canada’s appeasement mindset. While Russia persistently uses military force to prop up Assad’s bloody regime in Syria, support terrorist networks in eastern Ukraine, and threaten NATO’s eastern flank countries, the needs of the Third World remain Canada’s global priority.

Foreign Minister Dion recently told the Canadian Press, “It is terribly unfortunate that Canada has to deploy its forces in Latvia instead of having peacekeeping in Africa or in an area of the world where it is much more needed.”

Comments such as these, coupled with the government’s hesitancy to commit to enhanced security cooperation with Ukraine, should be a wake-up call. Not long ago, the Ukrainian community in Canada was heartened to see members of the government’s Liberal caucus wearing embroidered Ukrainian shirts on the steps of Parliament as a symbolic show of support for Ukraine. Today, as Ukraine looks to Canada to boost its security needs, it will require more than the occasional Facebook post of politicians in colorful shirts.

It is time for the government of Canada to move beyond optics. Canada is a middle-power nation, just like Ukraine. As Canadians, we should be especially sensitive to the plight of a middle-power country threatened by a belligerent neighbor. A policy that supports Ukraine, while standing up to Moscow, should cross all party lines.

The Free Trade Agreement will be meaningless, if Ukraine fails to secure its borders and defend itself against an aggressive invader. The Ukrainian-Canadian diaspora and Ukraine’s diplomatic corps in Canada must stand firm and clear. It’s not just economic cooperation that Ukraine seeks. Today, more than ever, Canada dare not diminish its military support for Ukraine – the frontline defender of European stability and security.

 Lisa Shymko is a Canadian international-affairs analyst. She holds a Master’s Degree in Political Science and Economics from the University of Toronto

By Lisa SHYMKO, special to The Day