US military training has long been controversial. Exhibit A for this controversy is the US military’s School of the Americas, the infamous “counterinsurgency” training site, responsible for instructing Latin American military personnel in the arts of torture and dirty war techniques in the 1980s. After years of protest over its training of death squads and tyrants, the school changed its name to the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation in an attempt to evade public hostility. It is widely understood among peace and anti-imperialist activists that military training is an important part of US global power projection.
In Canada, however, there is little discussion of the politics that shape international military training. The war in Ukraine may change that, specifically Canada’s involvement in Operation Unifier — a connection that directly links Canadian tax payers to violence in the Donbas region.
CTV, the Walrus, the Canadian Press, Le Journal de Montréal, and Radio Canada have all published recent stories on Operation Unifier. A recent front-page Wall Street Journal article, headlined “NATO Training Retooled Ukrainian Army,” focused on the central role played by Canadian military trainers. This increased media scrutiny should be the spear tip of greater public engagement with the issue. Canada presents itself as an avatar of peacekeeping and mediation. Canadian military adventurism — dressed up as obliging training assistance — requires oversight and democratic accountability.
Training Neo-Nazis With Canadian Taxpayer Dollars
Between April 2015 and Russia’s illegal invasion on February 24 of this year, 200 Canadian troops — rotated every six months — trained 33,346 Ukrainian soldiers as part of Operation Unifier. Canadian taxpayers spent $890 million on a training mission that began after Ukraine’s military largely collapsed amidst the violence unleashed by the ouster of elected president Viktor Yanukovych in 2014. Ottawa supported the three-months-long protest against Yanukovych — who opposed Ukraine joining NATO — a president who won elections the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe called “an impressive display of democracy.” During the uprising, Ottawa adopted new sanctions against the county, Foreign Minister John Baird attended an anti-government rally in Kiev, and activists were given safe haven in the Canadian embassy for a week.
Alongside US and UK troops, Canadian soldiers worked with Ukrainian soldiers on tactics, command structures, explosive-device disposal, and sniper training. In 2019, Yanukovych’s successor, former Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko, dubbed former Canadian defense minister Jason Kenney “the godfather of the modern Ukrainian army” for his role in instigating Operation Unifier.
Former Unifier commander Jeffrey Toope recently explained the mission to Le Journal de Montréal, stating that, “The objective was the modernization of their forces with the aim of one day becoming a member of NATO.” At the end of January this year, La Presse reported that “Canadian training allows Ukrainian forces to practice and do joint maneuvers with NATO.” The story quoted Lieutenant-Colonel Luc-Frédéric Gilbert saying, “We are working to bring them to a context where they would be interoperable with NATO forces. That’s what we’re aiming for: changing an army that was based on a Soviet model to transform it to the NATO model.”
As part of Unifier, Canadians trained neo-Nazis. Radio Canada recently documented Canadians training members of the Azov Regiment in November 2020 and August 2021. CTV has detailed other instances of Avoz Regiment training. In November, Ottawa Citizen military reporter David Pugliese revealed that, in June 2018, when Canadian military officials met leaders of the Azov Battalion, they knew the group used the Nazi “Wolfsangel” symbol. The Canadian officials were also aware that Avoz members had praised officials who helped slaughter Jews and Poles during World War II.
“A year before the meeting,” reported Pugliese, “Canada’s Joint Task Force Ukraine produced a briefing on the Azov Battalion, acknowledging its links to Nazi ideology.” Because Azov representatives boasted about receiving Canadian support, Canadian military officials were concerned about their ability to manage any potential public relations fallout.
Missions in Ukraine, Palestine, and Beyond
Unifier reinforced Ukrainian forces fighting in the east and enabled Kiev to avoid its commitments under the Minsk II peace accord. When Unifier was launched, the Russian embassy in Ottawa released a statement suggesting that the training mission would undercut implementation of Minsk II.
Before Russia’s brutal invasion, Canadians assisted Ukrainian forces fighting in a conflict that saw fourteen thousand killed in the Donbas. In 2019, Canadian Lieutenant-Colonel Frédérick Côté told a Ukrainian TV channel that the conflict in Donbas was part of the training. “What [soldiers returning from Donbass] tell us is valuable, because it allows us to make the training more relevant,” Côté said.
As a way to minimize direct involvement in fighting, Canadian trainers were initially restricted to the western half of Ukraine. When the Liberals extended the mission in 2017, they eased the restrictions that required Canadians to stay away from the east. (The first G7 minister to travel to the line of contact between the warring factions was International Development Minister Marie-Claude Bibeau.) Canadian military trainers built up the Ukrainian security forces that obstructed the implementation of a United Nations Security Council–endorsed peace accord.
The training mission in Ukraine may be Canada’s most significant and politically sensitive mission ever. Like all Canadian training missions, it is driven by strategic and geopolitical calculations. The Military Training and Cooperation Program (MTCP) states that its training
serves to achieve influence in areas of strategic interest to Canada. . . . Canadian diplomatic and military representatives find it considerably easier to gain access and exert influence in countries with a core group of Canadian-trained professional military leaders.
Over a thousand personnel from dozens of southern countries train in Canada every year through the MTCP. Canadian Forces also train other countries’ militaries through numerous forums. In the mid-1960s, when Ottawa initiated post-independence training missions in Africa, a memo to cabinet ministers described the political value of training foreign military officers. It stated that:
Military leaders in many developing countries, if they do not actually form the government, frequently wield much more power and influence domestically than is the case in the majority of western domestic nations . . . [it] would seem in Canada’s general interest on broad foreign policy grounds to keep open the possibility of exercising a constructive influence on the men who often will form the political elite in developing countries, by continuing to provide training places for officers in our military institutions where they receive not only technical military training but are also exposed to Canadian values and attitudes.
Since 2007, Canadian troops have been training a Palestinian security force that serves as an arm of Israel’s occupation. Part of the US Security Coordinator office in Jerusalem, Canada’s security assistance to the Palestinian Authority is designed to protect the corrupt and compliant body from popular backlash.
In recent years, hundreds of Canadian troops have been leading NATO training missions in Iraq designed to weaken the influence of the Iranian-aligned Popular Mobilization Forces. After the 2003 invasion, Canadian troops trained Iraq’s US-led military. High-level Canadian military personnel joined the NATO Training Mission in Iraq to “train the trainers” of Iraq’s military. A Canadian colonel, under NATO command, was chief of staff at the Baghdad-based training mission. Ottawa’s initial contribution of $810,000 was the largest single donation to this training center.
Suppressing Popular Uprisings Around the World
Canadian training in Afghanistan directly enabled the US war effort. A 2012 Ottawa Citizen headline explained that, “Canadian training mission meant to free up US soldiers for Afghan combat.” According to briefing notes prepared for Governor General David Johnston’s December 2011 visit to Afghanistan, nine hundred fifty Canadian soldiers were deployed to Kabul and other Afghan cities to “free up American forces to move to a [more aggressive] combat role.”
There are numerous other examples of highly politicized trainings. After the Honduran military overthrew the country’s elected president in 2009, a small number of the Central American country’s troops continued to train in Canada.
During its late 1990s war with anti-monarchist guerrillas, the Royal Nepalese Army (RNA) was trained in counterinsurgency techniques by Canada’s special operations Joint Task Force 2. In Canada’s Secret Commandos, David Pugliese writes that, “the RNA wanted Canadian military advisers to oversee its counterterrorism plans and suggest how best to fight the Communist guerrillas.” Eventually, Nepal’s Maoist forces succeeded in disbanding Nepal’s two-hundred-year-old monarchy and won the most seats in the country’s first Constituent Assembly as the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist).
In 1966, Ghana’s Canadian-trained army overthrew Kwame Nkrumah, a leading pan-Africanist president. After Nkrumah’s removal, Canadian High Commissioner C. E. McGaughey boasted about the effectiveness of Canada’s Junior Staff Officers Training program. The Canadian Armed Forces organized and oversaw a Junior Staff Officers course and took up several top positions in the Ghanaian Ministry of Defence. According to a memo from Canada’s military attaché to Ghana, Colonel Desmond Deane-Freeman, the Canadian soldiers in leading positions imparted “our way of thinking” on their Ghanaian counterparts. Celebrating this influence, McGaughey wrote the undersecretary of external affairs to gloat about the changes Canada had wrought on the Ghanaian armed forces: “It is still equipped with Western arms and although essentially non-political, is Western oriented.”
In his correspondence to the undersecretary of external affairs, McGaughey further noted that “all the chief participants of the coup were graduates” of Canada’s Junior Staff Officers training program. Of the coup itself, McGaughey claimed that “all here welcome this development except party functionaries and communist diplomatic missions.”
From Ghana to Palestine, military training missions have been an important part of Canada’s efforts to exert international influence. The role the country has played behind the scenes in multiple conflicts around the globe belies its façade as a peacekeeping nation of commonsense reconciliation and mediation. Canadian military trainers’ links to the horrors in Ukraine should prompt a much-needed public discussion of the subject.