Before he became Canada’s Defense Minister, Harjit Sajjan served in both his country’s military and the Vancouver Police Department.
During his military career, Sajjan was deployed once to Bosnia and Herzegovina and three times to Afghanistan, where his roots in South Asia made him an invaluable asset in communicating with Afghans. Sajjan’s police career focused on investigating gangs and organized crime.
These experiences make Sajjan a man of great interest to Ukraine, a country struggling to reform both its military and its law enforcement agencies.
At the Riga Conference, which ran from September 29 to 30, Sajjan discussed the challenges of strengthening the military and law enforcement with Hromadske. He praised Ukraine’s progress so far in reforming its police force and stressed Canada’s commitment to supporting the country.
But he also emphasized the importance of ensuring that international assistance — whether from Canada or other countries — can “be absorbed.”
“You can have the greatest fighting force, but if you can’t sustain it, you’re not going to be able to fight very well,” Sajjan told Hromadske. That, he said, is why implementing reforms is so important.
Hromadske sat down with Harjit Sajjan to get his views on Ukraine’s progress.
The Ukrainian president recently visited Canada, so what were the results? What can Ukrainians expect? And what can Canadians expect also?
First of all, we we got to meet President Poroshenko with our Prime Minister, obviously we had our bilateral talks, but, more importantly we got to greet and meet your athletes in the Invictus Games, and the resiliency of your soldiers, your security personnel, who then got to participate in the games and go on to win medals. It was actually very inspiring, just as inspiring to meet our soldiers as well, but, more importantly, when the athletes arrived from Ukraine, they were actually greeted by the Ukrainian community that is in Canada, and they got their warm welcome. It was very heartfelt to see, even in the opening ceremony there was a lot of Ukrainian flags that were displayed. So it shows the connection between our two nations. There are 1.3 million Canadians who are originally from Ukraine. So a lot meetings and discussions that we had were based on those very close ties. We talked about Operation UNIFIER - our contribution in Ukraine - and we talked about economic growth as well. And we talked about many initiatives that we can do to help Ukraine and work together, but one thing, for sure, that our Prime Minister reemphasized Canada’s commitment to Ukraine.
Photo credit: The Riga Conference
There is talk that Ukraine initiated the idea of UN peacekeepers, which could contribute to finding a solution to the conflict between Ukraine and Russia. Are those things being considering, and, in that case, can we expect Canadian participation? You have your own experience and your peacekeepers.
I know that President Poroshenko, back in 2015, announced this recommendations, this initiative. It’s nice to see that President Putin is actually now taking it on board. Obviously the criteria outline is probably not as agreeable to President Poroshenko, but, I think it’s an opportunity, but a cautious opportunity where we need to take a look at where this can go. There is a lot of work that has to be done moving forward to turn this into a reality, making sure that Ukraine and its sovereignty is well looked after. So, the discussions will begin. Canada has been a very strong partner with Ukraine, and we will always be there, but, these are the early days. Before, we need to look at making sure that Ukraine has its voice and making sure its needs are met, and then, once we move forward, we’ve got to talk about the mandate itself, make sure the mandate can actually meet the needs of what’s been agreed upon. So there’s a lot of steps in between before we even get to that stage. But, I look at it, if there’s an opportunity-based ability, then I think it should be pursued, but, as I stated, with cautious optimism.
Ukraine is undergoing a number of reforms, particularly in the security and defense sectors. In one interview, I heard you speak about how difficult it was to do something with the Afghan army, especially in terms of corruption, and, we know that historically there have been issues in Ukraine. So, as somebody with that background, being a Minister of Defense, what is critical for reforming the security sector, which is usually very tough?
Of course it is, but I’m also cautious of the fact that, while you’re doing these reforms, you’re having to deal with a threat within your own nation as well, in the Donbas area. So it’s not easy. I have been impressed with the level of work within the Ukrainian Armed Forces. The capacity building that Canada has been providing, and then to see the progress has been impressive, but also, there is still a lot of work that needs to be done. I had a really good discussion with Mr. Poltorak on this and how do we move this discussion forward, and the level of support. I’ve always stated, those reforms are very important to making sure you have the right efficiency and capabilities for the Ukrainian Armed Forces.
Canada will be there to provide the level of support, but what I’ve already stated, is that we need to make sure the support can be absorbed as well, so that’s why the reforms are very important, but I’m happy to see there has been progress made.
What reforms are needed for the help to be absorbed?
For example, you can provide a shopping list of the things you would need, right? If you don’t have the ability to utilize it well, you can bring in a capability and ask for something and provide it, but you need to be trained on it, that’s one you obviously know, but how do you utilize this system? The system itself has an effect. What is in the military planning? It’s how you integrate that into the wider structure within your own forces that’s so important. The command and control structure - you can have the greatest fighting force, but if you can’t sustain it, you’re not going to be able to fight very well, and that’s why the sustainment piece, the logistic piece, is so important and that’s why the reforms are important. so , based on the capacity building as you move forward, it allows you to absorb the additional capabilities and utilize them to the maximum effectiveness. That’s how I would try and describe that.
Photo credit: The Riga Conference
Canada is also backing the Ukrainian police reform. You represent a different ministry, but considering your background in the police, what are the critical things? Is it changing the mindset? Or is it the equipment? What are the things you need to reform first so that the police is trusted by the people?
As a police officer, this is something I have been very impressed with in Ukraine and how these reforms in policing have progressed really well. You can see the confidence within the Ukraine population. The police professionalization and the reforms that’s taken is critical, because they are the ones that actually deal with the population give confidence. If a population has confidence in the police force, then you have a much greater confidence in your wider security apparatus and agencies. When I visited Ukraine for the first time, that’s one thing that impressed me the most, because it’s not easy to do, to do the type of reforms, to bring in a community-based policing, making sure that’s done and they did that well. I think the military can learn a little bit also from how the police reforms have gone.
You mentioned a community base? You have seen the roots of that?
Yes, when I was in Lviv I got to speak with folks and I actually met with a retired RCMP officer, who had been in Afghanistan, so I knew him there. He gave me a very detailed perspective of what’s going on and when he said that he was impressed with the changes, and, more importantly, with the confidence that was building with population, I knew that it was working well, and that’s the reason why we wanted to provide greater support and when things are going well, you want to make sure that you can actually provide greater support in that arena. Ultimately, the greatest success, really, is the population itself and the resiliency that’s there. You obviously know this far better than I do, and I got to go to Kyiv for the first time, when you land and you see the normality, these skyscrapers being built, you just think you’re visiting any other European city and let alone the challenge the nation is facing. The greatest way of demonstrating and sending a message to a nation that’s causing problems for you, is for you to succeed. And the nation is succeeding, and that’s one of the reasons why, in Canada, we are so proud to be a part of that; the free trade agreement, we’re working on other avenues, so it’s not just defense related, we’re looking at increasing our trade, signed a defense cooperation agreement as well, we’re moving forward with that. The engagement of civil society is also equally as impressive and how taking on this challenge, come together and being able to volunteer the expertise and I saw that directly in terms of the technology that’s coming in because of the ingenuity. And then, when you take that all the way back into Canada, our community over there, that’s not just passively, but also actively involved in what’s happening in Ukraine. That’s what brings things together and one of the reasons Ukraine itself is going to continue to grow in progress. And it’s one hell of a message to send somebody that it causing problems for you.
Just one question on the region that’s extremely interesting for Ukrainians. We are currently in Riga and the Canadian troops, the part of the regiment that has this rotating deployment. What else can the Baltics expect from Canada? And another question - you were here a year ago, a few days before the election of President Trump, and currently, President Trump’s main message is about raising the GDP of every country for military expenses. When is Canada going to get to the 2%? What do you think about the strength of NATO? And what would be your answer to the concerns of Europeans about the current disturbance? Sometimes it is not very clear signals are coming from NATO and from the US?
Of course from NATO the signal has been very strong. The Enhanced Forward Presence battle groups led by four countries. Canada has been proud to lead the Latvian battle group. We have many nations that have come together. I spoke to Secretary Mattis when he was appointed and we talked about NATO and some of the other challenges and one thing they said straight out was that the US is committed to NATO and they’ve demonstrated this. And when it comes to Canada’s commitment to defense we started our defense policy review far before the US elections, so each nation needs to step up, to be able to make sure that they are able to contribute and contribute in a meaningful way, because the dollar figure as metrics is not going to be able to give you the right effectiveness. In Canada we have a Frigate persistently as our reassurance, we have air policing - over 135 personnel currently in Romania and they finished off with Iceland just before - we have 200 people in Ukraine leading a battle group here as well, we’re in Iraq, we will be launching peace support operation, or multiple ones. Canada is engaged in so many different ways. We deal with our own challenges, whether it’s hurricanes in the Caribbean, forest fires in DC, floods in Quebec. We will make sure that the Canadian Armed Forces have all the right resources and funding, and capabilities, for the next 20 years and we just demonstrated that with our new defense policy. We will be increasing our budget by over 70% by 2026, but this is not because somebody says so, because of a fictitious figure that has been created. This is about responsibility, our responsibility to the world, and that’s exactly what we’re doing. Our Prime Minister is committed to being a responsible partner in the world, the Canadian Armed Forces plays a very important role. But we will also do it in a very responsible way, not just the military. We will provide a whole government support when it comes to what we do. We do it here in Latvia, we’re demonstrating the same kind of commitment in other places.
Within the Ukrainian community in Canada there is a lot of support for the conservative government, especially for their foreign policy being a bit more tough. Now there is talk of lethal weapons being bought from the US, which seems more real than it used to be. What would be your answer on providing lethal weapons to Ukraine.
Well actually, going back to our original conversation, when we go back to a shopping list, providing something doesn’t mean you’re going to achieve the aim? What are you trying to achieve? I had a really good discussion with Minister Poltorak and he was a very accomplished military general, he understands that if you want to do something, build a long enduring capacity, you need a plan. That’s one of the reasons we want to reform government. We want to put together a realistic plan, not just get political checkpoints, we moved with the defense cooperation agreement, which is going to allow Ukraine to no have greater access with the Canadian defense industry, and then, we’re going to be able to not only create a plan from what the needs are, but then we’ll build a plan on the capacity building with the number of personnel that are in Ukraine right now. We’ll be able to provide the right type of capacity building, help them build a sustainment piece to it as well, so whatever the decision is made on what needs to be provided, it could be used for the maximum effectiveness because we cannot go down the path of checkmarks on a shopping list. That does not turn into results. What we want to do is focus on the results and what’s best for the Ukrainian Armed Forces and we’re providing that.