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Canadian military commits to training Ukrainian soldiers in Latvia as war drags on

OTTAWA — Defence Minister Anita Anand announced Wednesday that Canadian military members and their Latvian counterparts will begin training Ukrainian soldiers in Latvia as soon as next week.
National Defence Minister Anita Anand and Latvian Defence Minister Inara Murniece hold a joint news conference at the Canadian War Museum, Wednesday, May 10, 2023 in Ottawa. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld

OTTAWA — Defence Minister Anita Anand announced Wednesday that Canadian military members and their Latvian counterparts will begin training Ukrainian soldiers in Latvia as soon as next week. 

That means Canada is adding a third country to its training efforts under Operation Unifier, which is already active in Poland and the United Kingdom. 

Anand said it's a reflection of Canada's commitment to help Ukraine win the war against Russia.

"It is also a recognition that our world is growing increasingly dark, and that a year-and-a-half into the further illegal and unjustifiable invasion of Ukraine by (Russian President) Vladimir Putin, we cannot let up," Anand said.

"This war does not seem to have an end in the near term."

Canada has trained more than 36,000 Ukrainian Armed Forces members since 2015, the year after Russia annexed Crimea. 

The program in Latvia is set to provide junior officer leadership development training for the Armed Forces of Ukraine beginning as soon as May 15.

Anand made the announcement after a bilateral meeting with Latvian Defence Minister Ināra Mūrniece in Ottawa. 

Mūrniece said there is a sense of urgency in the Baltic region to maintain support for Ukraine 18 months into the Russian invasion.

"My country understands the situation. We are very close to (the) war zone," she said.

Latvia's military assistance to Ukraine now accounts for one per cent of the country's GDP, Mūrniece said, part of an overall push to boost its readiness.

"Our defence spending has reached 2.3 per cent of GDP. It means our military aid to Ukraine is about half of our military budget," she said. 

That spending is expected to soon climb to three per cent of GDP, well above the NATO alliance's stated target of two per cent.

Canada remains below that spending target at about 1.4 per cent.

The Washington Post recently reported, citing confidential documents leaked online, that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau privately told NATO officials his country will never reach that goal.

The federal government has refused to confirm or deny that report, saying only that Canada remains committed to NATO and investing in the military. 

Canada's military aid to Ukraine so far totals more than $1 billion.

Anand and Mūrniece travelled to Canadian Forces Base Petawawa on Tuesday. Their meetings focused on the plan to surge a Canadian-led NATO battle group in Latvia to a combat-ready brigade. 

That commitment was made in a joint declaration signed in June 2022, but plans are still in the early stages.

"The next stage is going to be establishing force development," Anand said, adding that another step will be defining the critical capabilities of allied countries' militaries. 

Canada has already announced that it is urgently procuring anti-tank, anti-drone and anti-air defence systems. 

Anand said she and Mūrniece met with representatives from the other 10 countries that are part of the battle group during the NATO defence ministers' meetings in Brussels in February. 

Negotiations are underway to determine what they can each contribute to a brigade. 

"The process is going well," Anand said.

About 800 Canadian Armed Forces members are currently deployed to Latvia, but it remains unclear how many members would be required for the brigade. 

The military is currently stretched thin, with more than 16,000 positions unfilled and increased demands from around the globe and across the country. 

That includes a recent request from Alberta to help with an early start to the wildfire season, which has led to the evacuations of thousands of people. 

Anand said the Canadian Armed Forces has pre-positioned aircraft and personnel in the area as it works to determine what help it can provide. 

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 10, 2023.

Sarah Ritchie, The Canadian Press