The Canadian government figures it has accomplished what might be called ``mission delicate.'' It successfully brought five Red Army ``deserters'' to Canada from Afghanistan last month without prompting economic retaliation from the Soviet Union.
Igor Lobanov, a spokesman for the Soviet Embassy in Ottawa, has said he has no reason to think the Canadian government was motivated by other than humanitarian concerns.
The Soviets have been buying around $1.2 billion in wheat from Canada each year. Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze signed a new agreement in early October that could mean another $1 billion a year in grain sales over the next five years. The sales are crucial to farm prosperity in the three prairie provinces.
So when Canadian ethnic groups of Russian and Ukrainian heritage pushed Ottawa to come to the rescue of the soldiers - most of whom had been in the hands of the anti-Soviet mujahideen (holy warriors) since the fall of 1983 - the government reacted with caution.
Robert Mykytiuk, president of the Canadian Ukrainian Immigrant Aid Society, which sponsored the five as immigrants, says officials in the External Affairs Department engaged in ``a big stonewalling session'' until stories in the Canadian news media forced them into granting immigration papers for the soldiers.
The government, he says, has ``more or less told'' him that it will not permit further Soviet prisoners of the mujahideen to be brought to Canada. Mr. Mykytiuk says there are some 249 Soviet ``deserters'' still in Afghanistan.
Paul Frazer, spokesman for the External Affairs Department, says: ``There is no other plan of this kind envisaged.... Individuals are free to move in certain ways. But government responsibilities are many-fold.''
As to delays in getting the soldiers out, he responded that the government must choose the timing it thinks best for such ventures to ensure success without creating failure in other areas.
Mr. Frazer emphasizes that the rescue mission was ``a humanitarian gesture'' not intended to generate anti-Soviet propaganda.
Under no political or diplomatic restraint, Mykytiuk talks of the Soviet action in Afghanistan as ``genocide'' of its people. ``This is really holocaust No. 2,'' he charges.
As for the five defectors, they are ``doing fine,'' says the Rev. Vladimir Malchenko of Toronto's Holy Trinity Russian Orthodox Church.
Four of the five are being looked after by Russian-speaking families in his congregation. The other defector, a Ukrainian, is being boarded with a family speaking his language. All five are to start studying English in a week or two. The government pays immigrants nearly $200 a week for six months while they learn English.
The government has instructed the five not to talk about how they were spirited out of Afghanistan. Various newspaper reports have suggested that either British or American intelligence helped out.
Serge Jusyp, a Toronto lawyer helping the five, expressed annoyance at a Southam News Service report from London this week indicating that the Pakistan government cooperated in the rescue mission.
``That is not going to do us any good in getting more out,'' he said, adding that Pakistan did not want to be identified with the Canadian rescue effort. Mr. Jusyp walked into Afghanistan in July 1984 to meet with the five and another defector who was too deep in Afghanistan to be rescued last month.
The Pakistan government, concerned with the possibility of Soviet military retaliation, has been highly cautious in dealing with the issue of Soviet deserters. According to some reports, it has even turned over some soldiers caught wandering around refugee areas in Pakistan to the Soviet Embassy in Islamabad.
Any deserters returning to the Soviet Union are either imprisoned or executed, Jusyp maintains. A Soviet spokesman in Ottawa denies that charge, saying they are with their families.
Once in Canada, the five Soviet defectors were debriefed at a military base.
Then reporters from the Kingston Whig-Standard of Kingston, Ontario, were given an exclusive interview with the five.
The newspaper and the External Affairs Department maintain that this was a reward for passing along valuable, confidential information about the deserters obtained in interviews with them in Afghanistan last March.
One Whig-Standard reporter, however, told the Toronto Globe & Mail that his newspaper had agreed not to ``hassle'' the government in its pages as long as the government was serious in its efforts to rescue the five.
The deserters have been frequently interviewed in Afghanistan or the refugee areas in Pakistan. They were sometimes traded between the different resistance groups for use as anti-Soviet propaganda.
Soviet Embassy officials were given the opportunity in Toronto to ask the ex-soldiers if they wished to return home. They all declined.
The media in general have seen the five only once in Canada - at a press conference in the Royal York Hotel on Nov. 24 a few days after their arrival in Canada. Since then, on the advice of lawyer Jusyp, they have been kept away from the press by their host families.
``The sponsors are acting like incredibly over-protective parents,'' says Jusyp approvingly. ``Every word they utter may have repercussions back on their families.''
The Canadian government has been working diplomatically to get both the Soviets and the resistance fighters to treat prisoners humanely under the Geneva Convention. A deal was reached in 1984 but broke down, says External Affairs spokesman Frazer.
The government is supporting efforts to get it back on track, he says.
Jusyp and Mykytiuk would like Canada to bring in thousands of the Afghan refugees as immigrants. Some children badly injured by Soviet ``butterfly'' mines will be brought to Canada for reconstructive surgery next year, Mykytiuk says.
Fraser, noting that there are many different refugee communities around the world, says, ``In all these problems of human plight, you can never do enough. No country is able to do it all.''