Trudeau won't say if Canada will extend military training mission in Ukraine

KYIV, Ukraine – Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is expected to wrap up his latest overseas travels Tuesday with a visit to western Ukraine, where he will greet the Canadian Forces soldiers who have been training their Ukrainian counterparts since last summer.

Whether those troops will still be there next summer, however, was both an open question and a central issue Monday as Trudeau met with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko.

The previous Conservative government deployed 200 Canadian military trainers to a base near the Ukrainian city of Lviv last year in response to Russia’s annexation of Crimea and support for separatist rebels in eastern Ukraine.

The Canadians, alongside British and American troops, have been teaching the basics of soldiering, such as how to use their weapons and move as a unit, as well as more advanced skills such bomb disposal and medical training.

“We are giving significant support to the Ukrainian military to be able to be more effective in defending and reclaiming Ukrainian territory,” Trudeau told a news conference where the two countries announced a new Canada-Ukraine free trade deal.

“We are very happy to be involved in and to be supporting the people of Ukraine.”

Trudeau wouldn’t say, however, whether the Liberal government — fresh from committing hundreds of troops to form the core of a NATO battalion in Latvia — will extend the training mission past its current expiry date in March.

Poroshenko said a professional military is essential for protecting his country’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. “I have asked the prime minister to prolong the mandate of the mission,” he said through an interpreter.

Asked to respond, Trudeau said Canada would co-ordinate with its international partners and allies on how best to help Ukraine in the future.

“We are right now focused on the training mission that is going so well for both Canadians and especially for the Ukrainian military,” he said. “As the situation evolves, we will continue to monitor and look at the best way we can continue to support and help Ukraine.”

Trudeau did promise more observers for a mission by the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe monitoring ceasefire violations between Ukrainian and Russian-backed separatist forces in the country’s east. Canada will increase its complement to the 700-strong OSCE mission from 25 to 50.

Canada will also send more police officers to help train the Ukrainian police.

Russia loomed large as Trudeau met with Poroshenko and other Ukrainian officials throughout the day. Some European allies are impatient that Ukraine is not doing enough to implement its commitments in the Minsk peace deal with the rebels and Russia, but Trudeau pointed the finger at Moscow.

“Russia has not been a positive partner,” he said. “They have not been moving responsibly or appropriately on things like ceasefires or international observers.”

For his part, Poroshenko said Ukraine has fulfilled 95 per cent of its political obligations and all of its security requirements under the agreement. He went on to accuse Russian “troops and mercenaries” of having launched an attack against Ukrainian positions earlier in the day.

Solidarity was a central theme to Trudeau’s visit to Kyiv, where he met with Ukrainian leaders and civil society groups and paid homage to Ukrainians killed in mass atrocities by the Nazis and Soviets in the 20th century, and more recently in the country’s 2014 revolution.

A key moment came when Trudeau and Ukrainian Prime Minister Volodymyr Groysman visited a memorial to those killed in the Euromaidan, an uprising that ousted the pro-Russian president in the name of democracy. Surrounded by pictures of the dead, the two placed rose bouquets before a wooden cross bearing the image of Jesus before a moment of silence.

A short time later, in a meeting with Ukrainian parliamentarians, Trudeau talked about the importance of fighting for democracy.

“Many of us in the West have gone a long time without having to fight for democracy,” he said. “Ukrainians reminded us how important democracy is, and how we can’t take it for granted.”

In a meeting with Groysman and his cabinet, Trudeau praised the Ukrainian government’s progress towards democracy. In meetings with Ukrainian leaders and civil society representatives, however, he also emphasized the importance of championing the hopes and aspirations of average Ukrainians wanting a better future.

“Reforms never happen as quickly as everyone would like,” Trudeau told the civil society roundtable session.

“But your job is not to make everything happen overnight, as you well know. Your job is to make sure that everything keeps moving forward as responsibly and as quickly as you can.”

Trudeau and his oldest son Xavier also paid their respects to Ukrainians killed in past atrocities. They laid a bouquet of flowers at a memorial to tens of thousands of Ukrainians, many of them Jews, killed by the Nazis in Kyiv during he Second World War.

— Follow @leeberthiaume on Twitter