How Many Ukrainians Will Die Before Ottawa Seeks Peace?

By restarting Operation UNIFIER Canada is ramping up its war with Russia. The military training mission had been Ottawa’s principal contribution to a seven-year-old proxy war, which appears likely to continue for years.

Last week Defence Minister Anita Anand announced that 225 Canadian troops would be dispatched to England to train Ukrainians. They will offer a wide range of assistance, including training on Canadian weaponry and intelligence.

Restarting UNIFIER, which was paused just before Russia’s illegal February 24 invasion, raises a number of moral questions about strengthening the far right, turning civilians into cannon fodder and, most significantly, whether UNIFIER will extend and expand the war. The Canadian government claims its objective is to defend Ukrainian sovereignty, which has a ring of truth to it. But UNIFIER was at the center of Canada’s proxy war with Russia.

As they fought Russian-backed forces in the east, Canadian troops trained 33,000 Ukrainian soldiers over seven years. When UNIFIER was announced in April 2015 the Russian Embassy in Ottawa released a statement noting, "it is neither appropriate, nor helpful to assist the military buildup playing into the hands of ‘party of war in Kiev’," which was Moscow’s pejorative description for the government of Petro Poroshenko who took office after the Canadian-backed ouster of Viktor Yanukovich in 2014. "It would be much more reasonable to concentrate on diplomacy and encourage authorities in Kiev to finally enter into a genuine political dialogue with Donetsk and Lugansk Republics as it was agreed upon in ‘Minsk-2’ accords in February."

In a bid to halt the fighting France and Germany oversaw the Minsk peace process. Two months after Minsk II was signed Canada launched a military training mission that bolstered Ukrainian officials opposed to implementing their commitments under the peace accord. Through UNIFIER the Canadian military assisted Ukrainian forces fighting a deadly war in the Donbas. Before Russia’s invasion, Canada was directly assisting one side fighting in the east. And Canadian engagement in the combat grew with time.

On the other side, Russia backed Luhansk and Donetsk republics. The simmering proxy conflict exploded into a major war when Russia invaded. Considering the military capabilities of Russia and the US, the conflict could escalate further.

Canada is deepening its war with Russia by restarting UNIFIER. Last Friday Global News confirmed a New York Times report that Canadian special forces are facilitating weapons deliveries and other supports on the ground in Ukraine. Asked about the Global News and New York Times reports by CBC’s Vassy Kapelos, the head of the Canadian military called them "disappointing." Wayne Eyre said, "speculation in media feeds Russian disinformation" which "is itself becoming a weapon." The Canadian public does not have the right to know if its troops are in Ukraine, according to the Chief of the Defence Staff.

Alongside Canadian special forces, the federal government has encouraged former soldiers to travel to Ukraine. Canada has also provided significant amounts of arms and military intelligence. A little discussed Canadian contribution to the conflict, the Communication Security Establishment is offering intelligence and cyber support to Ukrainian forces.

In some cases, Canadian-trained Ukrainian soldiers, equipped with Canadian weapons and employing Canadian military intelligence, are fighting alongside former Canadian soldiers.

Beyond the military sphere, Ottawa has adopted aggressive sanctions and seized Russian assets. Simultaneously, they’ve openly opposed negotiations or any mention of peace.

By restarting UNIFIER Canadian officials are preparing for a long fight. The longer the conflict drags on the greater the toll on Ukraine. Tens of thousands of its soldiers have been killed or injured and millions have fled the country. Russia controls 20% of Ukrainian territory and its economy is in ruins. According to a new World Bank report, 55% of Ukrainians are expected to be extremely poor by the end of 2023, which is up from 2.5% before the Russian invasion.

In a widely viewed, though much maligned, 2015 lecture titled "Why is Ukraine the West’s Fault?" prominent US realist scholar John Mearsheimer pointed out that pressing Ukraine to get tough with Russia by dangling EU and NATO membership was leading Ukraine "down the primrose path" that will see the country "get wrecked."

Ottawa restarting Operation UNIFIER adds weight to those who have been saying that NATO’s aim all along has been to fight Russia to the last Ukrainian.

Yves Engler’s latest book is Stand on Guard for Whom?: A People’s History of the Canadian Military.