Fears that Canadian training mission in Ukraine may unintentionally help neo-Nazis groups
U.S. lawmakers have voted to block American troops from training a unit with neo-Nazi members that’s operating with Ukraine’s forces — a move that raises questions about what safeguards Canada has to ensure it doesn’t help extremist groups.
Canadian soldiers from Petawawa Garrison in the Ottawa Valley are preparing to head to Ukraine later in the summer to train government forces. U.S. troops are already there.
But Republicans and Democrats in the U.S. House of Representatives are concerned some of those to be trained could be linked to extremist groups.
Democratic Congressman John Conyers, Jr. joined forces with Republican Congressman Ted Yoho last week to add an amendment to the Pentagon’s defence spending request. The amendments, passed unanimously by members of both parties, blocks “the training of the Ukrainian neo-Nazi paramilitary militia Azov Battalion,” Conyers’ office noted.
“If there’s one simple lesson we can take away from U.S. involvement in conflicts overseas, it’s this: Beware of unintended consequences,” explained Conyers in a statement.
Defence Minister Jason Kenney acknowledged in April that Canadian military leaders discussed how to avoid training extremists in the upcoming Ukraine mission. He said Canadian soldiers would not be training ad hoc militias and would only instruct units of the Ukrainian National Guard and the army.
But Conyers pointed out while the Azov Battalion is a 1,000-man militia unit, it is also now part of the Ukrainian National Guard. He labelled the battalion as “repulsive.”
The unit has continued to face accusations of neo-Nazi links.
U.S. lawmakers have voiced concern about American military equipment falling into the wrong hands. Tanks, trucks, anti-tank rockets and other gear were captured by the Islamic State after Iraqi troops retreated in large numbers. Some U.S. supplies provided to Ukraine’s government have ended up on the black market.
Andrey Dyachenko, a spokesman for the Azov Battalion, told USA Today in March that only 10 to 20 per cent of the unit are neo-Nazis. Last year, members of the battalion were shown on German television wearing helmets with Nazi insignia.
Department of National Defence spokeswoman Ashley Lemire said Tuesday that Ukraine is responsible for screening the troops that will be trained by Canada. “The first instalment of trainees will be members of the Ukrainian Armed Forces (Land Division), which falls under the Ministry of Defence,” she stated in an email. “We have been assured that this group will not include members of the Azov Battalion as this battalion is not integrated into the Ukrainian Ministry of Defence.”
No details were provided as to when the National Guard troops will be trained by the Canadians.
Conyers’ office noted that Ukraine’s Interior Minister, Arsen Avakov, recently announced that Azov troops would be among the first to be trained by the U.S.
Jack Harris, the NDP defence critic, said concerns have been raised before about what forces Canada could end up training.
“If they’ve integrated (Azov) into the larger organization, then we will be seeking clarification from Mr. Kenney about what is happening here,” Harris said.
He noted that Kenney is up Wednesday before a Commons committee and will face such questions about the training.
The Conservative government has committed as many as 200 Canadian soldiers to train Ukraine’s military.
Some Ukrainians claim that accusations against the Azov Battalion have been fabricated by Russian propagandists to undercut support for Ukraine.
The battalion issued a statement that it is outraged by the statements by the U.S. congressmen and that the unit has always embraced patriotism.
Canada is a key supporter of Ukraine and has denounced Russian involvement in the ongoing crisis in the region.
Some former Canadian diplomats have suggested the government’s position on Ukraine is aimed at winning votes from Ukrainian-Canadians in the upcoming federal election.