Published:Janaury 17, 2022

-Global News

Canadian special forces operators have been deployed to Ukraine amid rising tensions between the NATO military alliance and Russia, Global News has learned.

The deployment of a small contingent from the Canadian Special Operations Regiment comes as diplomatic talks aimed at staving off an armed conflict in Ukraine have faltered, and an estimated 100,000 Russian troops remain camped on Ukraine’s border.

Sources told Global News that the Canadian special operations presence is part of an attempt by NATO allies to deter Russian aggression in Ukraine, and to identify ways to assist the Ukrainian government.

The unit has also been tasked with helping to develop evacuation plans for Canadian diplomatic personnel in the event of a full-scale invasion, sources said.

Neither the government nor the Canadian Forces would officially confirm the special forces presence in Ukraine when contacted by Global News, other than to say special forces operators have been involved in Canada’s broader assistance to Ukraine.

“(The Canadian Special Operations Forces Command) is part of the broader Armed Forces’ efforts to support Ukraine’s Security Forces,” wrote Maj. Amber Bineau, a spokesperson for special operations command, in a statement to Global News.

Bineau noted that Canadian special forces have been providing training, as well as “instructor and leadership expertise,” to Ukrainian counterparts since 2020 — although sources told Global News the latest special forces contingent, which left for Ukraine around Jan. 9, is not conducting training.

Diplomatic talks between the U.S., European allies and Russia ended last week without a clear path to deescalate tensions along the Ukraine-Russia border. Russia’s deputy foreign minister, Sergei Ryabkov, called the talks a “dead end.”

In a statement Friday, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said NATO and the U.S. remain committed to a diplomatic solution and urged Russia to scale back its operations on Ukraine’s border. But the U.S. also warned Russia may look for a pretext to invade Ukraine should diplomatic talks falter, including engaging in “false flag” operations to precipitate a conflict.

The Kremlin has denied the U.S. accusations.

Russia has demanded a guarantee that Ukraine will not be permitted to join the NATO alliance — a demand that both U.S. and NATO officials have flatly rejected.

Canada’s foreign minister, Mélanie Joly, departed Sunday for a week-long visit to Kyiv and bilateral meetings to reaffirm Ottawa’s support for Ukrainian sovereignty.

“The amassing of Russian troops and equipment in and around Ukraine jeopardizes security in the entire region,” Joly said in a statement.

“These aggressive actions must be deterred. Canada will work with its international partners to uphold the rules-based international order and preserve the human rights and dignity of Ukrainians.”

Canada has consistently backed Kyiv in its dealings with Russia since Putin annexed Crimea in 2014. According to the Canadian government, Ottawa has committed roughly $700 million in assistance to Ukraine since Jan. 2014, including provision of non-lethal military equipment and sending rotations of 200 Canadian Armed Forces troops every six months to train Ukrainian security forces.

The opposition Conservatives have urged Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and the Liberals to reject Putin’s demands, but instead to “stand shoulder to shoulder” with Ukraine and Canada’s European allies.

Aurel Braun, an international relations professor at the University of Toronto, said in an interview Monday that while Canada’s support does “make a difference,” the West’s central player around the negotiation table is the U.S.

“It depends a great deal what the Americans do,” said Braun, who is also associated with Harvard’s Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies.

Braun said Canada and its allies need to continue to support Ukraine — not only from a military perspective, but also economically and diplomatically — as Russia’s goal is to isolate Kyiv and present Ukraine as a failed democratic experiment.

“What Mr. Putin fears is a successful Ukraine, because if there would be a successful democratic state emerging on (Russia’s) borders … that would present an alternate vision to the kind of ultra-nationalistic kleptocracy that is running inside Russia itself,” Braun said.

On Friday, Canada’s deputy minister of foreign affairs, Marta Morgan, met with U.S. deputy secretary of state, Wendy Sherman, to pledge “continued close coordination to deter further Russian aggression against Ukraine.”

According to U.S. officials, Morgan also agreed that “further Russian invasion of Ukraine would result in massive consequences and severe costs including coordinated, restrictive economic measures for the Russian Federation.”