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Ukrainian troops improvising medical supplies: UNIFIER training commander

Defence Minister Bill Blair says Canada has asked the Ukrainian government how it can help, while its donation of an air-defence system faces indefinite delays. Canada's Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Finance Chrystia Freeland, center, and the Minister of National Defence Bill Blair, second left, talk to Polish and Canadian troops during a joint exercise that provides training to soldiers from Ukraine near Jezewo, central Poland, Sunday, Feb. 25, 2024. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP-Czarek Sokolowski

ŁÓDŹ, Poland — Ukrainian troops are using improvised medical supplies on the battlefield because they don't have what they need to treat and transport the wounded, the officer commanding medical training for Operation UNIFIER told federal ministers Sunday.

Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland and Defence Minister Bill Blair visited the Polish Armed Forces’ Military Medical Training Center Sunday, where Canadian troops help to train Ukrainian soldiers as medics as part of Operation UNIFIER.

As they walked through the base, just a few hours outside of Warsaw, the sound of a small explosion signalled the start of a lifelike demonstration of the medical and tactical skills Ukrainian troops are learning as part of their training.

Ukrainian troops simulated a live battle as they dragged their wounded comrade out of a tank and used a tourniquet to stop his bleeding. Then they loaded him onto a gurney and carried him into an armoured ambulance.

Few of those steps would be possible with the supplies and equipment those soldiers will have in the field, though, Major Heath Robson told Freeland as she watched the exercise. 

While the training is great, Ukrainians "don't have the tools and the life saving kit that they require to do that great work," said Robson, who oversees the medical training mission. 

"They're needing to improvise a lot, to the point where they're even using doors — like house doors — to use as stretchers, for example."

The Operation UNIFIER mission began in 2015 and has trained about 40,000 Ukrainian military and security personnel in battlefield tactics and advanced military skills.

Canada deployed army medics to Poland to train Ukrainian troops in March 2023, and so far 248 Ukrainians have graduated from the 30-day program.

Freeland and Blair visited the base after returning to Poland from Ukraine, where they marked the second anniversary of the Russian invasion Saturday with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

In Kyiv Saturday, Trudeau pledged $320 million in new military spending as part of a long-term security deal with Ukraine. 

But on the military base in Poland Sunday, Blair admitted there have been challenges getting Ukraine what it needs. 

In perhaps the most glaring example, he's asked his Ukrainian counterpart how else the Canadian government can help while its donation of an air-defence system faces indefinite delays.

Getting air defence systems onto the battlefield is the top priority, Ukraine's president has said, but the $406-million surface-to-air missile system Canada promised a year ago still hasn't been delivered — and it's not clear when it will be.

"The questions we've asked (Ukraine) is what can we get to you, because the need is urgent and we are prepared to be flexible in delivering to Ukraine what Ukraine needs," Blair said.

Canada announced the donation of a national advanced surface-to-air missile system, known as NASAMS, in January 2023. Canada purchased the system as part of a coalition with the United States, but there have been "challenges" with the contract. 

Trudeau is expected to meet with Poland's president and newly elected prime minister Monday before returning to Canada. 

The Polish government wants to make sure Canada and other allies stay engaged in the war raging on the other side of its border, Canada's ambassador to the country, Catherine Godin, said ahead of the meeting. 

The war presents a real and present threat to the people of Poland, she said. 

"They look at the pictures of cities in Ukraine, and they think of Warsaw, how it was flattened 90 per cent after the (Second World War,)" she said.

"So it feels very real. It feels very personal for them."

Freeland, a Ukrainian Canadian, offered her own personal tribute to the 30 or so Ukrainian troops going through the rigorous training, as well as their Polish and Canadian teachers. 

"I am absolutely certain that together, with our support, Ukraine will win and Putin will lose," Freeland said in Ukrainian. 

Covered in fake blood and real sweat, the Ukrainian trainees responded with a resounding battle cry of "Slava Ukraini:" glory to Ukraine. 

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 25, 2024.

Laura Osman, The Canadian Press

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