Canada · Russia

Russian infiltration of Ukrainian military complicates Canadian training mission

Defence Minister Jason Kenney announces that Canada will send 200 military trainers to Ukraine, April 14, 2015. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld

Matthew Fisher
Tuesday, Apr. 14, 2015


Training Ukrainians to fight pro-Russian separatists may turn out to be a far more complicated business for the 200 Canadian soldiers Ottawa announced Tuesday it is sending to Ukraine than it is for the nearly 70 Canadian trainers now on a similar mission in Iraq.

The reason is that Russian intelligence operatives of every kind have so deeply compromised the Ukrainian military that almost nothing they say or do remains secret for long, according to a recent paper for the U.S. Army’s Foreign Military Studies Office at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas.

Citing unclassified, mostly Russian sources in his essay, “Brothers Disunited: Russia’s Use of Military Power in Ukraine,” Roger McDermott warned of the “penetration of the Ukrainian state intelligence apparatus, the SBU or Security Service of Ukraine by Russian intelligence agencies including GRU (Russian Military Intelligence), the FSB (Federal Security Service and the SVR (Foreign Intelligence Service).”

The infiltration of the Ukrainian military does not only involve formal intelligence operatives. Ukrainians sympathetic to Moscow are believed to be working inside or close to almost all Ukrainian military units, making all aspects of the conflict — including training for war — that much harder for those assisting the Ukrainian side.

Ukrainian soldiers guard their position in the village of Berdyanske, eastern Ukraine, Tuesday, April 14, 2015. Pro-Russian operatives are believed to have infiltrated throughout the Ukrainian military. AP Photo/Evgeniy Maloletka

Several Canadian officers familiar with the Ukrainian file said they were aware of possible Russian interest in what the Canadian trainers would be doing, but they did not elaborate.

Because of the pervasiveness of Russian intelligence operations in Ukraine, the satellite imagery that Canada has begun to supply to the Ukrainians could also quickly end up back in Moscow. It is thought that the reason that Washington has been unwilling to share its best satellite imagery with the Ukrainians is that it does not want the Russians to find out what its satellite capabilities are.

While Russian espionage will undoubtedly make the Canadian mission harder, it probably does not pose any additional physical risk to the Canadian trainers. As Defence Minister Jason Kenney repeatedly emphasized when announcing the planned summer deployment in Ottawa, the Canadians will be working with U.S. and other NATO trainers far from where the war is being fought in eastern Ukraine. If the situation in Ukraine worsens, Kenney noted, the Canadians can travel to the safety of nearby Poland from where they could be evacuated.

Unlike in Iraq, where Canadian special forces mentors have worked very close to the front lines at times and have been involved in brief firefights, the trainers headed to western Ukraine, mostly from CFB Petawawa, in the Upper Ottawa Valley, will not accompany Ukrainian units into the field to help them identify and target the enemy. Rather, as they did during a much larger Canadian training mission in Afghanistan that followed Canada’s combat mission in Kandahar, the Canadians will do all their teaching on heavily guarded bases.

 According to the government, their activities will include: explosive ordnance disposal and improvised explosive device disposal training; military police training; medical training; flight safety training; and logistics system modernization training.

Russia’s intelligence operatives and the Ukrainian sympathizers who work for them will almost certainly try to undermine the Canadian mission by keeping close tabs on what tactics and strategies the Ukrainians are being taught as well as the logistics of the mission.

For their part, the Russians have been training rebel forces for the past year on tactics and strategy and how to manage advanced weapons systems, both inside eastern Ukraine and in southern Russia. But these separatists do not face anywhere near the same level of penetration by Ukrainian intelligence and the eastern Ukrainians who support Kyiv have long ago fled for their lives.

In fact, as McDermott concluded, as well as instigating many battles and supplying and equipping their allies, the Russians made training their allies a top priority long before NATO got around to it.

Western nations including Canada have been very slow to respond to Ukraine’s urgent appeals for weaponry. But the Canadians are particularly well suited for the Ukrainian training mission because of the combat and training experience they got during Canada’s decade in Afghanistan.

As in Afghanistan, the Canadians will have lots of work to do. The Ukrainians, like the Afghans, have put few resources into training or equipping their forces with new gear since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. They are badly in need of help in almost every area.

National Post with files from Postmedia News