Canadian government faces ‘difficult’ situation with volunteers joining defense of Ukraine

With dozens of Canadian volunteers in Ukraine to help resist the new Russian invasion, their presence is creating a thorn in the side of the Canadian government, especially with concerns that those with far-right ties might want to join the fight. , as Ottawa has few resources to help volunteers who may need consular assistance.

As Russian forces bombarded his cities, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy made a call last month for “anyone” to join the International Territorial Defense Legion of Ukraine. “There is no greater contribution you can make for the sake of peace,” he said on February 27.

Many Canadians apparently responded to Zelenskyy’s call to fight in Ukraine. According to a CTV reporta spokesman for the International Legion said the Canadian volunteers made up one of the regiment’s largest groups, but would not disclose how many had joined the defence.

Amid the outpouring of support for Ukraine, some extremist pundits have raised concerns about those with far-right ties looking to join the fight. At the start of the conflict, far-right militia leaders in Europe urged their supporters to fight to defend Ukraine, according to a New York Times report. The conflict could allow far-right groups to gain combat experience and training.

International security expert Christian Leuprecht, a professor of political science at the Royal Military College and Queen’s University, said Canadians volunteering to defend Ukraine is “fraught with peril.”

He said the presence of potential extremists among those who have volunteered to defend Ukraine shows the pitfalls of allowing Canadians to join the fight, which could strengthen the Russian narrative. Russian President Vladimir Putin defended the invasion of Ukraine, saying the offensive was launched to “denazify Ukraine”. Leuprecht added that there are concerns that volunteers do not know the laws of armed conflict or what ethical and moral decision-making looks like in a chain of command, exposing them to prosecution if atrocities take place.

Defense Minister Anita Anand (Oakville, Ont.) said joining the defense of Ukraine is an individual choice, but she called on those who want to help Ukraine to join the Canadian military instead. .

A Global Affairs spokesperson said the department’s ability to provide consular assistance to Canadians in Ukraine is “very limited.” Hill Times photograph by Andrew Meade

Downplaying the risk of Canadians with far-right ties joining the Ukrainian resistance, public safety expert Wesley Wark said a bigger concern was the government’s ability to provide consular assistance.

“When Canadian volunteers fight for the Ukrainian International Legion, Canada must exercise some responsibility to come to their aid, if necessary,” said Wark, senior fellow at the Center for International Governance Innovation. “If they are injured, if they have to be evacuated, if they are captured by the Russians, they are still Canadian citizens and they deserve the support of an adviser even in times of war.

Wark said the Canadian government is “morally obligated” to help Canadians in danger, adding that the obligation would be “all the stronger” in the current conflict as Canadians joining the fight against Ukraine on are doing to support a position of the Canadian government… to help Ukraine and to oppose the Russian invasion.

Global Affairs spokeswoman Sabrina Williams said Canada’s ability to provide consular services in Ukraine is “very limited” as it no longer has a “physical presence” in the country, citing that the government has advised against all travel to Ukraine since February 1.

“The Government of Canada may not be able to provide assistance to Canadian citizens who join militias or armies and are injured or captured by Russian forces,” Williams said in an email, noting that Global Affairs takes no no record of the number of Canadians choosing to travel to Ukraine.

“Canadians in Ukraine should not be dependent on the Government of Canada to help them leave the country,” she said.

While noting that “the safety and security of Canadians abroad” is a “top government priority,” the spokesperson added that the decision to travel to Ukraine is the “sole responsibility of the traveler” and that the government “cannot guarantee the safety and security of Canadians abroad.

NDP MP Alistair MacGregor (Cowichan-Malahat-Langford, B.C.), his party’s public safety critic, said in a statement that New Democrats “strongly advise all Canadians against to travel to Ukraine” because of the “very dangerous situation”.

“However, we understand that people have close ties to Ukraine, such as family and friends, and may want to travel to Ukraine for various reasons despite knowing the dangers, and the government should not prevent them from traveling. in the area,” MacGregor said. , who was not available for an interview.

NDP MP Alistair MacGregor said his party “strongly advises” Canadians not to travel to Ukraine. Hill Times photograph by Andrew Meade

The Ukrainian Embassy in Ottawa said in a statement earlier this month that it was looking for international volunteers with medical and military experience, noting that it advised anyone considering joining the defense of Ukraine. on the “high risk and dangerous security situation in Ukraine”. .” According to a Global News report, those wishing to join the International Legion must complete a questionnaire and will be interviewed by an Embassy official. Candidates are questioned about their military and criminal background.

Leuprecht said the vetting process helps reduce extremists joining the fight, but it has limited impacts.

“In Canada, it can take us up to two years to clear someone,” he said. “It’s not a process you can do in days or weeks.”

“You can do checks, but there are a lot of things you can’t glean from paper alone,” he said.

A spokesperson for Public Safety Canada did not respond to questions about whether the government was concerned about Canadians with far-right ties volunteering to join the fight in Ukraine, nor did it shares information with Ukraine on Canadians seeking to join the International Legion. The spokesperson led hill time to the separate response he received from Global Affairs regarding consular assistance, which was not asked to respond to the government’s position on those with far-right ties joining the conflict.

In the past, there have been concerns that Canada’s training of Ukrainian soldiers has included extremists, such as members of the Azov Battalion. According to a Citizen of Ottawa reporta Canadian official noted in 2017 that “several members” of the battalion “described themselves as Nazis.”

Leuprecht said the International Legion offers protection against a volunteer who holds extremist views by joining the combat organization that best suits them.

“There is some control and proper process over what and how people engage, both for operational reasons and for propaganda reasons,” he said.

The presence of extremists in the ranks of those who volunteer to fight in Ukraine could also be mitigated as the conflict has divided many far-right people, Leuprecht said.

“They sympathize with authoritarian motives and intuition [of Russia]but even they personally abhor what they’re watching or they realize that whatever group you belong to, it’s not going to be a good public relations or recruiting mechanism to associate you with Putin these days “, did he declare.

Wark said he does not see the conflict in Ukraine as attractive to extremists who champion far-right or white supremacist ideas.

“It’s not a place you want to be [soldiers] are likely to find a place on the battlefield,” he said.

He said their presence will be reduced by Ukraine’s vetting process for the International Legion and the fact that they are looking for volunteers with combat experience.

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