Canada has barred its soldiers from joining Ukraine’s “international brigade” of foreign fighters, amid growing concern that captured troops could be used as a Russian propaganda tool.
Speaking to Canadian parliament’s defense committee on Wednesday, Lt Gen Frances Allen, the vice-chief of the defense staff, said top brass had issued an order preventing full-time service members and part-time reservists from traveling to join Ukraine’s newly formed foreign legion .
The rule, which also applies to soldiers on leave, follows a call last month from the Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, for volunteers to defend his country from Russia’s invasion.
Thousands are believed to have answered, including enough Canadians to form their own battalion – the Canadian Ukrainian Brigade. While some veterans have used their skills for humanitarian work, others have picked up arms.
The only Canadian soldiers permitted to enter Ukraine are those with formal approval from Wayne Eyre, the chief of defense staff, Allen said. Canada had previously sent 250 military trainers to Ukraine, but those troops were moved to Poland before Russia invaded.
Canadian officials have long been clear that they discourage travel to the region, but the foreign minister, Mélanie Joly, had previously said she was sympathetic to the Ukrainian Canadians wishing to defend the country. Canada has the largest Ukrainian diaspora outside Russia.
“We understand that people of Ukrainian descent want to support their fellow Ukrainians and also that there is a desire to defend the motherland and in that sense it is their own individual decision,” Joly said in early March. “Let me be clear: we are all very supportive of any form of support to Ukrainians right now.”
Much of that aid has been humanitarian, as well as shipments of weapons. Canada has also offered to accept an “unlimited” number of Ukrainians seeking temporary refuge.
The warnings from Allen come as Russia has threatened criminal prosecutions against foreigners captured fighting in Ukraine. Allen also told lawmakers that captured Canadians could become a propaganda tool for Moscow as the Kremlin looks to wage its own information war amid heavy losses on the battlefield.
“Foreigners who may be engaged in the country can be used in ways that are difficult and counterproductive to the work that is going on there through the disinformation campaigns that we know that Russia is very apt to use,” she said.