Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy asked Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in a phone call on Tuesday to consider expanding Canada’s military training mission in Ukraine and increasing the number of Canadian soldiers in the country, the president’s office said.
Zelenskiy also asked Trudeau to help Ukraine in its goal of joining the NATO military alliance.
Since 2015, Canada has deployed about 200 soldiers to Ukraine to train Ukrainian security forces as part of its Operation Unifier to support the country’s sovereignty and territorial integrity in the face of Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 and its support to pro-Russian rebels in Eastern Ukraine.
Tensions in the eastern Donbas region have increased recently with both Kyiv and pro-Russian separatist authorities in the breakaway Donetsk and Luhansk regions accusing each other of ceasefire violations and reneging on commitments to pull back heavy weaponry.
“During the truce since July 27 last year, 28 warriors have been killed by the shelling in Donbas, 24 of them this year. Since March 26 alone, we have lost eight of our soldiers,” Zelenskiy told Trudeau, according to a readout of the phone call provided by the president’s office.
Zelenskiy stressed the need to increase international pressure on Russia to prevent further escalation, the readout said.
Ukrainian and Western officials have sounded the alarm over recent large troop movements by Russia on its southern border with Ukraine. Since late March the Russian military has been holding snap military exercises in its Southern Military District, which includes Crimea.
The Russian saber-rattling is seen by many experts as the Kremlin’s response to Zelenskiy’s crackdown on pro-Russian media outlets in Ukraine and Ukrainian oligarch Viktor Medvedchuk, believed to be a personal friend of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
After campaigning on the promise of a quick resolution to the conflict in Eastern Ukraine, Zelenskiy has hardened his position in negotiations with Russia and has moved to cement his nationalist and pro-Western credentials amid plummeting popularity due to his government’s handling of the pandemic and economic stagnation.
Securing a path towards membership in NATO has become one of the main foreign policy goals of his administration.
In his call with Trudeau, Zelenskiy once again stressed the importance of Ukraine obtaining the NATO Membership Action Plan (MAP).
“As a special partner of Ukraine, Canada could take the lead among the allies who support a MAP decision for Ukraine. Canada’s assistance will be an important signal of support from true friends,” Zelenskiy told Trudeau, according to the readout.
The readout of the call released by the Prime Minister’s Office also mentions that the two leaders discussed Operation Unifier, but makes no mention of Zelenskiy’s request to expand the military training and increase the number of Canadian soldiers deployed in Ukraine.
“Prime Minister Trudeau also expressed deep concern about Russia’s destabilizing actions and recent military activities in Crimea and along the border with Ukraine,” said the readout released by the PMO.
“Prime Minister Trudeau emphasized Canada’s unwavering commitment to support Ukraine’s sovereignty, security, and territorial integrity.”
Last week, Canada imposed new sanctions on two more Russian officials and four entities “in response to Russia’s illegal occupation and annexation of the Autonomous Republic of Crimea.”
“For seven consecutive years, Russia has systematically ignored calls from the international community to end its violations of Ukraine’s sovereignty, territorial integrity and international law,” Foreign Affairs Minister Marc Garneau said in a statement. “The people of Ukraine deserve a better future, one that they can build themselves, free of interference by Russia.”
Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova said the new Canadian sanctions demonstrate “official Ottawa’s morbid stubbornness as it continues to deny objective reality.”
“There may be only one way to help deal with it. You need to bid farewell to the illusion that the residents of Crimea, who voted to return to their home harbor, can be forced to go back on their historic choice,” Zakharova said during her regular press briefing in Moscow on Apr. 1.
“The Canadian authorities’ attempts to tell sovereign countries how to live and what values to uphold undermine Canada’s reputation and plunge it into confrontation with an increasing number of significant international players.”
Russia will not leave Ottawa’s attack unanswered, she added.
“We are now working on the response,” Zakharova said.