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Disagreements and short tempers: The inside story of Justin Trudeau’s diplomatic scramble on Ukraine and Russia


Disagreements and short tempers: The inside story of Justin Trudeau’s diplomatic scramble on Ukraine and Russia

OTTAWA — In international diplomacy, what you see in public — the speeches and photo ops — is a smoothly polished version of rough-and-tumble conversations that rarely spill out in the open.

But this week, at a critical moment in modern history with the world still in a pandemic, the reverse was often true.

The scramble behind closed doors as global leaders hustled to co-ordinate responses to Russia’s war on Ukraine could be glimpsed outside — telling a story of urgent efforts to build and cement Western solidarity with Ukraine and show revulsion with Russia.

You could see it in the rushed photo ops, hastily organized meetings that ran late, tempers running short, and in subtle acknowledgments at leaders’ podiums of differences in how nations can or can’t afford to approach President Vladimir Putin.

European and North American leaders differed on how quickly to ban all Russian banks not just the major ones from the SWIFT financial system. They differed on how quickly to target Putin’s closest allies, like billionaire Roman Abramovich, finally targeted at the end of the week. They differed on how quickly to cut off Russian oil and gas exports — a key supplier of energy to many European countries. NATO allies differed on whether to provide Polish Soviet-era jets to Ukraine’s aid. The Americans thought about it for a few days and said no, lest it escalate into a full-blown international war.

That’s the “red line” NATO leaders including Prime Minister Justin Trudeau have drawn since Russia invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24.

Trudeau acknowledged there are differences but insisted allies are united in a “clear-eyed” view that Russia has violated basic principles of territorial integrity and sovereignty enshrined in the UN Charter and must face severe consequences.

The Star travelled to cover the talks last week and spoke to multiple Canadian and other government sources who were inside the rooms or had military and diplomatic eyes on the meetings to understand what was going on behind the scenes.

Trudeau’s trip never started out as the miniseries of high-level multilateral and bilateral summits that it became. It was supposed to be just a bilateral visit to Germany, so Trudeau could rub elbows with its new progressive leader Chancellor Olaf Scholz and talk climate change and economic growth coming out of the pandemic.

In the last 10 days, Canada hastened to organize additional meetings for the trip and by Sunday, Trudeau was on a Canadian Forces plane en route to the U.K., Latvia, Germany and Poland.

Nearly all Trudeau’s top officials joined him or met up along the way: senior PMO political and communications staff, foreign policy advisers in the PMO, the Privy Council Office, and Global Affairs, Privy Council Clerk Janice Charette, Chief of Defence Staff Gen. Wayne Eyre, Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland, Foreign Affairs Minister Melanie Joly, Defence Minister Anita Anand, International Development Minister Harjit Sajjan, a large RCMP protective detail, and more Canadian journalists than had been on any recent trip, even before the pandemic.

When other leaders learned Trudeau’s schedule, more decided to join him, according to Canadian officials. Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte, who has a warm relationship with Trudeau, wanted to participate in meeting British Prime Minister Boris Johnson. The Canadians reached out to NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg who would travel to Latvia to make a display of NATO unity. Pedro Sanchez, the prime minister of Spain — the second largest contributor of troops to NATO’s mission in Latvia, decided to go too.

Freeland told reporters the value of face-to-face meetings couldn’t be underestimated — that much more could be communicated and co-ordinated in person than in a 30-minute phone call even over secure government lines.

Canadian government officials who would ordinarily get “travel” phones for Russia or China in order not to get hacked now were carrying burner phones for a trip to Europe. Riga, Latvia is just a few hundred kilometres from the Russian border.

Still, at the end of the week, it was hard to see what concrete new actions would emerge in response to Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s increasingly desperate pleas — which he will amplify this week in a speech to Canada’s parliament Tuesday.

The Russian invasion began Thursday, Feb. 24. In the first week, the U.S., Canada, the U.K., European Union and G7 ally Japan began to roll out economic sanctions — export controls and penalties that Canada helped design when it came to targeting the Russian Federation’s central bank ability to use its foreign currency reserves.

Canadian officials say Freeland working with deputy minister Michael Sabia came up with the plan, with Freeland lobbying international counterparts to cut the Russian central bank out of the international SWIFT transaction system. Canada was first to publicly come out and call for it on Friday, Feb. 25.

A day later, the U.S., the U.K. and the EU agreed — a “watershed moment,” said European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen. Soon after Switzerland ditched its historic neutrality and agreed to enforce sanctions.

Germany reversed a lethal weapons transfer policy that dated back to the Second World War and said it would ship 1,000 anti-tank weapons and 500 Stinger missiles to Ukraine and halted a massive Russian pipeline project. It was a “180-degree turn” both on defence and energy policy, with Scholz now saying energy policy is not just about climate change but about security, a German official told the Star.

Western allies mobilized to move humanitarian aid to the region to cope with what is now a massive Ukrainian exodus of mostly women and children from the war zone.

But the staggered, increasingly lethal shipments of military weapons to Ukraine that stopped short of getting NATO directly involved in the conflict seemed too little too late with each videotaped message by Zelenskyy.

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Last week, the sense of an ongoing rush to craft new measures was evident as custom diplomatic practices fell by the wayside.

Johnson insisted Trudeau and Rutte meet him at Royal Air Force Station Northolt in his riding an hour outside London. There were awkward moments. Johnson unmasked, handshaking and backslapping; Trudeau, masked, reached in to shake hands. Rutte, masked, moved in for elbow bumps.

Later in London Johnson, trying to squeeze in calls with other global leaders, ran late for the formal trilateral news conference. He missed greeting Rutte outside 10 Downing Street. An official in Johnson’s office, asked by the Star why Johnson hadn’t hosted the trilateral sit-down in London, said “diary conflicts.”

In Latvia, intense security surrounded the visit to the Adazi army base, headquarters for NATO’s main battle group there. There were strict instructions to journalists on what to photograph and what not to show on social media. The day was intended as a big show of force and NATO unity.

Yet it had an improvised air to it, and not just because of the jostling, moving press scrums following the leaders from Latvia, Canada, Spain and NATO over a rutted ochre-coloured field to talk to troops paused amid a live-fire exercise.

In Germany, the top event organizer in the German chancellor’s office barked at Foreign Affairs Minister Joly to step back as Scholz and Trudeau were about to arrive. Then, as she was stepping back, he yelled “NOW!” at her.

Leaders and their staff are understandably jumpy.

The escalating Russian attacks all week — from the devastating shelling of civilian neighbourhoods, the power outage at Chernobyl nuclear plant, and the bombing of Mariupol’s maternity hospital — were a grim reality that demanded a unified, stronger response.

By Wednesday evening in Berlin, Scholz and Trudeau met for another three more hours, a sit-down that was not on the official schedule, but one Trudeau’s officials said was a key one. Scholz is one of few world leaders having direct conversations with Putin.

In Poland Thursday evening, Trudeau crossed paths and sat down for an hour with U.S. Vice-President Kamala Harris, who said “by coincidence or maybe fate” they were in Warsaw to “be alongside” allies “at the same time, for the same purpose.” It was the day after the Pentagon said no to an offer to send Polish jets to Ukraine.

The Trudeau-Harris meeting ended up running an hour long. Each had met separately with Poland’s Prime Minister Andrzej Duda earlier that day.

Duda, after his own joint news conference with Trudeau ended, approached Canadian journalists. He’d hoped to speak to CTV chief anchor Lisa Laflamme. A fan of her newscast to perfect his English, Duda then revealed a lot about his own private conversations with Trudeau, more than the Canadian prime minister did.

He said Trudeau was the first leader to call after Russia invaded Ukraine, asking if Poland would keep its borders open to refugees that would flee, and promised Canada would do whatever it could to support Poland and other countries taking in refugees like Moldova and Romania.

Now that 1.5 million refugees had arrived in Poland, Duda said he discussed with Trudeau the question of airlifting those who want to travel further onward to Canada, and who would provide those planes. He asked Trudeau to simplify entry procedures for Ukrainians.

Canada has not dropped the visa requirement and security checks for the evacuees, which are mostly women and children, although Trudeau announced another $117 million to help support the processing of refugees.

Duda said there were discussions as well about how allied weaponry would reach Ukraine but declined to elaborate, citing security concerns.

Asked if he believed Russia will escalate to using chemical weapons, Duda said “I can’t answer. Of course, there is the threat, there is danger that they will do that.” What the West would do then “is the allied decision,” he said.

On Friday, before flying back to Ottawa, Trudeau announced his government had finally sanctioned Roman Abramovich a day after the U.K. did along with other new targets. And he signed onto a G7 leaders’ statement later released while the prime minister was in the air, en route home.

The G7 urged Russia to ensure safe passage for civilians wishing to leave Ukraine and unhindered humanitarian access to the victims of war.

The G7 also promised more pressure and sanctions to come against Russia, its oligarchs and ruling elite, and its military ally Belarus, saying it is working to “prevent Russia from obtaining financing from the leading multilateral financial institutions, including the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development.”

It was a week where all the talk, international diplomacy and promises of more action barely seemed enough.

Tonda MacCharles is an Ottawa-based reporter covering federal politics for the Star. Follow her on Twitter: @tondamacc

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