Canada will commit a contingent of soldiers to the British Army’s ambitious program to turn Ukrainian civilians into fighting troops, Defense Minister Anita Anand said Thursday.
She made the announcement in Toronto, confirming what multiple sources told CBC News.
Outgoing British prime minister Boris Johnson committed to the training plan in mid-June while meeting with Ukrainian President Volodomyr Zelenskyy in Kyiv.
Up to 10,000 Ukrainian soldiers are expected to fly to the UK for basic and specialist military training in courses that last five weeks. The British intend to repeat the program over several months with the intention of training of tens of thousands of fresh soldiers. The first tranche of Ukrainian recruits arrived and instruction began in early July.
The plan amounts to the restart of Operation Unifier, the long-standing training mission which saw —until its suspension last winter — more than 33,000 Ukrainian soldiers given advanced combat instruction by Canadian soldiers.
That mission, conducted on Ukrainian soil, was halted and the troops pulled out of the eastern European country in mid-February on the eve of the full-scale Russian invasion.
The new iteration involves up to 225 personnel, the majority of whom will work as trainers, supported by a command and control element, Anand said.
The initial deployment is expected to be four months.
“When we paused training in Ukraine this past winter, we said clearly that we would resume the training whenever and wherever the opportunity arose,” said the minister.
“By working with the United Kingdom, we will continue to make good on that promise. Canada salutes the courage and bravery of the Armed Forces of Ukraine, and we will continue to help empower them with the skills that they need to defend their nation’s freedom and independence.”
The first Canadian-led courses will take place at a military base located in South East England, and Anand said they will teach a flexible curriculum focused on individual skills required for front-line combat, including weapons handling, battlefield first aid, fieldcraft, patrol tactics and the Law of Armed Conflict.
The Ukrainian government has repeatedly pressed Canada to restart the training in a third country, said diplomatic sources, who spoke separately to CBC News and were granted anonymity because of the sensitivity of the file.
The Liberal government made the training mission, which began under the former Conservative government, a point of pride, and was often pointed to as proof of Canada’s commitment to Ukraine’s security.
During the press conference following her announcement, Anand was asked why the government didn’t relaunch the training mission sooner.
Anand defended the timing of the decision by pointing to other military supports Canada has been providing, including a number of M777 howitzers and training on how to use the artillery guns.
Ukraine’s ambassador to Canada, Yulia Kovaliv, said Ottawa’s contribution to the program is valued by her country, though she noted that Ukraine is still in need of new weapons.
“It is a very important initiative,” Kovaliv told journalists following a parliamentary committee hearing on Wednesday.
“It is also important to further provide Ukraine with heavy weapons,” she added.
UK says Canadian troops will ‘further boost’ mission
On Thursday, Britain’s defense secretary lauded Canada’s decision to join the training program.
“I am delighted that the Canadian Armed Forces will be joining the growing international effort to support the training of Ukrainian soldiers in the UK,” said Ben Wallace in a statement.
“Canada’s expertise will provide a further boost to the program and ensure that the Ukrainian men and women, coming to the UK to train to defend their country, will get a wide pool of experience and skills from both UK forces and our international partners.”
A Canadian defense expert, Walter Dorn, questioned how much the recruits will be able to absorb over the course of five weeks training. He believes the need for combat instruction will extend beyond the four month deployment the federal government has set aside
“So this is a crash course for Ukrainian personnel to get on to NATO’s standards, and certainly they’ll be needing this for years to come,” said Dorn, who teaches at the Canadian Forces Command College.
“I think that four months is probably just our initial commitment, but it will be required if we want to provide that shoulder to shoulder support to Ukraine to provide this kind of training for years to come.”
Dorn also says the British have thrown about 1,000 soldiers toward the training plan while Canada has committed roughly the same as it did under the first iteration of Operation Unifier.
He says Ukraine needs to build a fresh army now to replace its casualties and Canada could be doing more, especially since cabinet authorized up to 400 trainers when it renewed the commitment last winter.
Trudeau left door open to participate in UK effort
Asked about Johnson’s training plan at the end of the NATO Summit in June, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau left the door open to participating.
“Canada will continue to look for opportunities to continue to support Ukraine in a range of ways,” he said. “We have actively done training on the howitzers which we did in Latvia [and] we’re looking for other ways as well to be helpful.”
The prime minister was referring to the training that took place last spring after Canada donated four of the army’s 155-millimetre M-777 howitzers to Ukraine.
Before the eruption of full-scale war in Ukraine, Britain separately helped train Ukrainian forces between 2015 and 2022 under the banner of Operation Orbital, putting approximately 22,000 troops through their program.
It also withdrew when Moscow launched its so-called special military operation to overthrow the government in Kyiv.
When the UK inaugurated its new training program in early July, it invited allies to participate. In addition to Canada stepping forward, one other unidentified Commonwealth country is expected to join the effort.
British Defense Secretary Ben Wallace visited one of the training areas after the first recruits arrived and lauded the initiative.
“Using the world-class expertise of the British army we will help Ukraine to rebuild its forces and scale up its resistance as they defend their country’s sovereignty and their right to choose their own future,” Wallace was quoted as saying by the British media.