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Trudeau and Ukraine’s new president agree to talk about expanding free trade

Canada and Ukraine have agreed to discuss expanding the existing free trade agreement between the two countries, according to a senior government official.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy met today in Toronto. The two leaders struck an agreement to expand Canadian film and television access to Ukraine and declared a mutual interest in improving student exchanges and youth work permits between the two countries.

According to a statement released after the leaders’ meeting, trade talks would build on the deal agreed to in 2015 between prime minister Stephen Harper and then-Ukrainian prime minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk and signed in 2016.

The government official said no date has been set for the start of trade talks but they’re expected to happen “soon.”

As the leaders took questions from the media after the meeting, Zelenskiy suggested that his government also had secured an agreement with Canada for the purchase of armoured vehicles.

“We also had an agreement with the prime minister and with Canada, and now we can discuss it very openly, yes, I guess there is an agreement about supply of armed vehicles to Ukraine,” Zelenskiy said through a translator.

The government official said, however, that while both leaders discussed a number of issues, no agreement was signed that would see military vehicles shipped to Ukraine.

Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland was asked about the vehicles during a media availability with First Vice Prime Minister of Ukraine Stepan Kubiv later in the day. She declined to answer.

Kubiv replied to the question by expressing his country’s appreciation for all the help Canada had given Ukraine, without mentioning armoured vehicles.

Freeland announced $45 million in new support for Ukraine, with $33 million of that sum going to support the country’s governance reforms, to promote gender equality and to bring government services to Ukrainians in conflict-affected regions.

Canada also is giving $6.5 million to help Ukraine further develop its police force and will station up to 45 Canadian police advisers and trainers to serve in the country until 2021.

Standing against Russia

Trudeau said Canada will continue “to stand with Ukraine against Russian interference and aggression.”

“In the wake of Russian aggression and attempts to undermine Ukraine’s sovereignty, including the illegal annexation of Crimea, it’s all the more important for countries like Canada to stand alongside its partner,” Trudeau said.

“Russia’s actions are not only a threat to Ukraine but to international law.”

In 2014, Russia annexed Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula in the worst breach of Europe’s borders since the Second World War — an act Canada and its Western allies view as illegal. Russia also has fomented a pro-Kremlin insurgency in the country’s east that has left more than 13,000 dead.

Declining Russian issued passports

In November, Russia detained 24 Ukrainian sailors and seized three ships in the Kerch Strait, which connects the Sea of Azov and the Black Sea off the Crimean coast. Last month, a United Nations maritime tribunal said Russia must free the sailors and their ships. Russia said the tribunal has no jurisdiction over it.

Canada has supplied Ukraine with $785 million in military, legal, financial, development and political assistance since 2014, when President Vladimir Putin tried to bring the country back into Russia’s sphere of influence just as Ukraine was poised to deepen its integration with the European Union.

Freeland also said that Canada would refuse to recognize the legitimacy of Russian-issued passports for residents of Crimea, describing them as “another form of occupation.”

“This is not about legitimate holders of Russian passports. Nor is this measure directed in any way to prevent people from living in occupied Donbass (in eastern Ukraine) from coming to Canada,” she said.

“People who are citizens of Ukraine, which is the case for people living in occupied Donbass and Luhansk, are very welcome to apply for a visa to come visit Canada using their Ukrainian passport.”

Comedian turned president

Zelenskiy is making his North American debut at the Ukraine Reform Conference in Toronto, more than a month before he is to visit the United States. Ukraine’s envoy says that’s no mistake.

Andriy Shevchenko, Ukraine’s ambassador to Canada, said that’s an indication of just how much importance Zelenskiy attaches to the ties between the two countries that have grown in the past 28 years.

Zelenskiy, a popular actor and comedian with no previous political experience, easily won this spring’s presidential election, unseating Petro Poroshenko and sparking concern about whether someone who played the Ukrainian president in a fictional TV drama was cut out for the actual job.

But Zelenskiy has worked quickly, dissolving his country’s Parliament and pushing forward with new elections for that assembly later this month, a timeline that was months ahead of its previous schedule.

Shevchenko said the three-day reform conference will see representatives from 30 countries participating, as well as representatives from major international institutions such as the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank.

Liberals not doing enough: Conservatives

Canada is home to 1.3 million people of Ukrainian descent, which makes it one of the country’s most influential diaspora communities. That has big domestic political implications with the October federal election looming.

The Conservative opposition said Tuesday that the Liberal government isn’t doing enough to show its support for Ukraine. Erin O’Toole and James Bezan, the party’s critics for foreign affairs and defence, called on the government to send Canadian troops to lead an international peacekeeping mission along the Ukraine-Russia border.

They also called for increases in military and development assistance, as well as more sanctions against Russians.

Freeland said Canada would continue to ensure Ukraine received help as it looked to build a more democratic government.

“Ukraine has Canada’s full support as it continues to develop and implement the fundamental reforms that are needed for a secure, sovereign and prosperous future,” she said.

Freeland’s own Ukrainian heritage has helped keep the country near the top of her agenda.

Freeland was one of the first Western politicians to visit Zelenskiy in Kyiv after he was declared the victor of the presidential race at the end of April.

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