OTTAWA—Russia President Vladimir Putin has displayed “irrationality” in his invasion of Ukraine, prompting NATO countries to reject Ukraine’s calls for a “no-fly” zone so as not to escalate the conflict into a direct war with Russia, says Canada’s top diplomat.
Speaking to the Toronto Star’s editorial board after travelling from Poland to Brussels ahead of meetings Friday with NATO foreign ministers, Foreign Affairs Minister Mélanie Joly said NATO leaders are determined to reinforce the alliance’s eastern flank.
“There are still lots of things on the table” to respond to Russia’s aggression and to exert “maximum” pressure on Putin, she said.
“But at the same time, we need to make sure that we’re not triggering an international conflict, right? So that is for all of us and including President Biden, the red line.”
Joly said Western leaders “hear” the calls for a no-fly zone from Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy who she said is doing a “tremendous” job and has rallied the support of the world including 141 countries at the UN which demanded Russia’s withdrawal from Ukraine. The efforts of ordinary Ukrainians to repel the invasion have inspired international co-operation and efforts that just 10 days ago nobody thought possible, she said.
However, Joly twice referenced Putin’s “irrationality” — behaviour she suggested has led Canada, the U.S., Britain, Australia, New Zealand and European partners to all agree that what must be avoided is an international war.
Joly discussed the crisis with former U.S. secretary of state Hillary Clinton Thursday, and said, “We both agree the importance is to put maximum pressure on Russia, knowing that there is certainly a level of irrationality with Putin particularly right now. And in order to get to any form of off-ramp or diplomatic solution we need to be at a level where the pressure on him, and around him, is extremely high.”
Asked if there was unanimity among NATO allies on the question of rejecting a no-fly zone, Joly said “At this point, my understanding is that there are no countries that are supporting the no-fly zone because they have the same assessment as we do which is this would be escalatory,” she said.
She said she was on the same flight as her Latvian and Estonian counterparts, en route from Poland after travelling near the Ukraine border to speak to Ukrainian nationals fleeing to determine what they most need.
NATO member states, particularly those bordering Russia “are much more preoccupied with how we’re dealing with Ukraine because this is a testament of how we would deal with other potential pressures, particularly on them directly,” she said. “They want reinforcements of the eastern flank. And so at this point, I think we’re seeing a movement of solidarity.”
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On the humanitarian and refugee crisis, Joly said because Ukrainian nationals don’t need a visa to go into the EU, it may be “easier” for many to travel on through Poland, Slovakia, Moldova and Hungary to France, Germany or other European countries, however, many may ultimately choose Canada as their next destination.
Canada eased travel requirements Thursday, creating an emergency travel authorization for Ukrainian nationals, and opening up study and work permits for those who might want to come temporarily with a possibility of extending stays up to two years, and a new family reunification sponsorship program for those who might seek permanent residence.
Joly did not rule out using Canadian aircraft that are now delivering military assistance to airlift Ukrainians fleeing the conflict. She said if the need is there, “we could definitely work diplomatically to make sure that there is an airlift should that be required.”
Joly, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg are also to attend a meeting of foreign ministers of the European Union Friday.
She portrayed Canada’s role as a “convenor” and bridge-builder among European, NATO and Five Eyes (Canada, U.S., Britain, Australia and New Zealand) allies, saying Canada has played a key role when it comes to interpretation of declassified intelligence about Russia’s movements and plans, as well as co-ordinating sanctions, including the move to oust major Russian banks from the SWIFT financial transaction system.
“That’s why we’ve been able to isolate Russia, put maximum pressure, and Canada has been really, really instrumental.”
Still, Joly acknowledged there is work to do to ensure the rapid implementation of the SWIFT decision. “I would say the co-ordination is very strong and yes, we’re pushing more.”
She defended Canada’s contribution to date of $150 million in humanitarian aid — which the New Democrats have called a “drop in the bucket,” saying “I think we’re leading the coalition” of allies who are donating money to relieve the pressures in the region.
Joly said the contribution will be assessed on an ongoing basis, adding “it’s important we’ve decided to do it also within the UN rather than building different coalitions because it’s the best way to get the support to the ground.”
Tonda MacCharles is an Ottawa-based reporter covering federal politics for the Star. Follow her on Twitter: @tondamacc
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