In Ukraine

By Murray Brewster, Canadian Press, Jan 7, 2016  (appearing in The Globe and Mail and on CBC.ca, under the title ‘Instructing Ukrainian troops a wake-up call for Canadian soldiers’)

A fresh batch of Canadian military trainers is about to deploy to eastern Europe, and the outgoing commander says his soldiers took a lot of their own notes in addition to handing out assignments to Ukrainian troops.

Canadian military trainer (R) at the International Peacekeeping and Security Centre in Starychi, western Ukraine on Nov 25, 2015 (photo by Dep't of National Defense of Canada)

Canadian military trainer (R) at the International Peacekeeping and Security Centre in Starychi, western Ukraine on Nov 25, 2015 (photo by Dep’t of National Defense of Canada)

Lt.-Col. Jason Guiney, who is about to end his five-month stint, says even though their training bases are 1,200 kilometres away from the fighting in the breakaway eastern regions, his troops have learned a lot about the nature of the conflict. “It’s a very big wake-up call for us as an institution,” Guiney said Thursday in a telephone interview from Lviv, located in western Ukraine.

In dealing with Ukrainian troops, he said, they’ve had an up-close look at how Moscow-backed separatists have mixed high-tech Russian weaponry, cyberattacks, propaganda, conventional warfare and insurgency warfare into a toxic, deadly campaign.

“There’s a lot of very modern Russian equipment in there,” Guiney said, referring to armoured vehicles that have the ability to deflect anti-tank rockets. “We’ve learned about how Ukrainians are deploying methods to defeat that.”

The speed and sophistication of the conflict, which began with Russia’s annexation of Crimea [sic] in March 2014, has startled many western military planners who’ve come to describe what’s happening the country as hybrid warfare. “We’ve learned they’ve experienced cyberattacks; electronic warfare, like radio jamming; heavy use of drones, like UAVs, which are used for precision artillery strikes,” he said.

Following more than a decade of guerilla war fighting in Afghanistan, he added, the Ukraine experience is making an impression and “forces us to get back to our basics and take a hard look at our own doctrine.”

The mission, which is slated to go until March 2017, has allowed ordinary Canadian soldiers “and even senior (non-commissioned officers) to take this experience back to Canada with them.”

The first rotation of Canadians, from Garrison Petawawa, Ont., will slowly be replaced by a fresh batch of troops from CFB Valcartier, Que.

Up to 200 Canadian trainers are teaching regular Ukrainian army units infantry combat skills, battlefield medical treatment and how to defuse and dispose of roadside bombs. Separately, a contingent of military police is working in Kyiv mentoring counterparts there.

Because of the unconventional nature of the conflict, Guiney said the military has taken steps to protect the identities of its trainers. National Defence was criticized last year for imposing restrictions on media photographs and video of troops departing for Ukraine.

Such restrictions are not unheard of. For instance, the military does not allow pilots and ground crew involved in airstrikes against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant to be seen or interviewed on camera — only the commander.

Similarly, there were restrictions during the Afghan war on reporting the identities and operations of special forces soldiers.

The directive for Ukraine — imposed even though it is not a war-time scenario — is meant to prevent retaliation in both the real and online world, Guiney said.

Read also:
Canada in Iraq: The hidden war, broadcast on CBC Television’s Fifth Estate, Oct 30, 2015 (45-minute broadcast). From the program website:

One of the largest decisions weighing on the shoulders of prime minister-designate Justin Trudeau is what role, if any, should Canada play in the war against ISIS. And how will Canadians know whether their efforts are having the intended results? Do we really know what our troops are doing in Iraq? Do we even know whether Coalition airstrikes are hitting intended targets? Bob Mckeown reports from the front lines of Canada’s war in Iraq and Syria.

Deep behind ISIS lines, two brave people agreed to talk to the fifth estate about what life is really like under brutal occupation. One is Rami, a young man who tells us his story as he sees his town destroyed and its citizens terrorized — fearing all the while that he will be found out and killed. The other, Leila, is a journalist who made a treacherous journey overland to meet our team in Erbil, Iraq.  She documents what she says is the little-known toll of civilian casualties from Coalition air strikes. Through their stories, a narrative emerges about fear of ISIS and of the bombs dropped from the sky. The fifth estate explores how the true reality of this war is hidden from all.

*****

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