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The inside story of Justin Trudeau’s secret trip to Ukraine


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The inside story of Justin Trudeau’s secret trip to Ukraine

OTTAWA — Air raid sirens blared in Kyiv as Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and a tiny Canadian delegation made a secret visit on Sunday to the capital amid very real concerns Russia would intensify its war on Ukraine.

Yet, said one of those Canadians, “we felt safe. We were kept safe.”

Plans were afoot for a few weeks in advance of what became a whirlwind 10-hour tour on the ground by Trudeau to Ukraine.

President Volodymyr Zelenskyy wanted Trudeau in his capital for May 8 when all of the symbolism of a key ally visiting on the anniversary on which Ukraine remembers victims of the Second World War and an allied victory over a Nazi aggressor would not be missed.

By then, other political leaders from Britain, Europe and the Baltics had safely made the trek after Russian forces retreated from the advance on Kyiv to focus on the eastern flank.

But security concerns for this trip grew as the date approached amid fears Russia would mark the same anniversary with a formal declaration of war on Ukraine, conscripting more Russians into the fight, annexing occupied areas, or ramping up bombardments.

“I don’t think there’s a person in Ukraine or who’s engaged in Ukraine who wasn’t worried about what might happen,” said Canada’s ambassador to Ukraine, Larisa Galadza. “A lot of thought and analysis was put into that.”

Risk assessments also had to consider that even if Russia itself would not directly attack a Western leader’s delegation, sympathizers or rogue actors might see an opportunity.

The Star spoke with several people who planned and took part in a visit laden with symbolism, but one Galadza said is crucial for Ukraine and Canada alike.

In the end, the ambassador, who was posted to Kyiv in November 2019, said she was gratified to return with the prime minister to reopen the embassy she had closed and left on Feb. 13.

But it was also sobering, she admitted in an interview from Kyiv on Tuesday. “The last time I saw security of the kind that we had, I was in Baghdad. And so that was hard. That hit me to see those kinds of armed guards standing around the embassy as we got out of the motorcade to go in again for the first time.

“I can tell you 24 hours on the ground has already been invaluable in providing us with more texture, more detail, more of a sense of what’s going on. And that means that we can make our assistance, we can make our advocacy and our diplomacy and our high level of engagement that much more effective.”

While secretly Canadian and Ukrainian officials had been talking about a potential visit for a couple of weeks, publicly, calls were growing for Trudeau to travel to Kyiv as others had done. Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland and Foreign Minister Mélanie Joly hinted some kind of plan was in the works.

But it was the scheduling of a meeting of G7 leaders for May 8 that finally sealed the timing to underscore solidarity with Zelenskyy’s embattled government.

Elite Canadian Forces special operations personnel — JTF2 officers — accompanied the Trudeau delegation, but it was Ukrainians who would be in charge of security for the prime minister’s visit and who insisted not only on the utmost secrecy, but on admitting just a small group, according to sources who spoke with the Star on a background-only basis.

A larger group of Canadian officials — policy, communications and security advisers — travelled with Trudeau, Freeland and Joly as far as Poland.

But contrary to usual practice — even when prime ministers in the past have travelled to war zones like Afghanistan or Mali — no Canadian media were advised in advance or offered the opportunity to travel, if only as far as Poland.

Sources said Ukraine indicated none beyond the prime minister’s top group would be allowed in and insisted as well on a strict embargo on any word of the trip.

It was only after the Canadian delegation departed Ottawa early Saturday, just after 8 a.m., for an eight-hour flight to Rzeszow, Poland, that the prime minister’s office advised any Canadian media outlets the trip was underway.

Those with reporters on the ground in Ukraine were notified so they could scramble to organize a broadcast pool. The Globe and Mail, with a correspondent in Ukraine, could assign its reporter. The Star, which relies on wire services for on-the-ground Ukrainian reporting during this conflict, did not have anyone there and covered from afar.

When the Canadian Forces Airbus flight with the call sign RCAF 15003 landed around 10:30 p.m. local time in Rzeszow, a small group would travel onward: Trudeau, Freeland, Joly, the prime minister’s chief of staff Katie Telford, deputy chief of staff Brian Clow, national security adviser Jody Thomas, ambassador Galadza, and official photographer Adam Scotti.

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The others, including Trudeau’s executive assistant Philip Proulx, senior advisers Ben Chin and Patrick Travers, Privy Council Clerk Janice Charette, and PCO foreign policy adviser Dan Costello remained in Poland. Communication would be spotty for the next several hours as Trudeau’s staff did not carry their cellphones into Ukraine, another security precaution.

The travelling prime minister and aides boarded a special train not open for the general public, destined for Kyiv. There were frequent unexplained stops, with the rail lines being used by many trains. When Trudeau’s delegation arrived at Kyiv central station some 12 hours later in the late morning, the prime minister and his aides immediately were escorted under heavy security in a motorcade of armoured vehicles, including an ambulance, past checkpoints where they didn’t stop, into Irpin.

The suburb is about 45 minutes northwest of Kyiv where Russia’s invading army had been held off by Ukrainian forces. Its bridge, deliberately collapsed to halt the Russian advance, is familiar in photos that showed residents trying to flee two months ago. Now, with the Russians gone, an earthen bridge has been built alongside to allow traffic to flow again.

Irpin’s mayor was the first to break the embargo on word of Trudeau’s presence in Ukraine, tweeting about showing the Canadian leader around. In Canada, media who had been sworn to secrecy then published.

Trudeau said Tuesday the residents of Irpin had defended not just their city, but the capital.

“What I saw was communities that defended themselves against being outnumbered eight to one. The local militia, the local police officers and firefighters who joined the local militia were able to prevent Russia’s attack, not just on Irpin, but on Kyiv behind them.

“The reality is there is going to still be a lot of work demining those apartments and those communities before Ukrainians can return to their homes. This war has caused devastation and that’s all on Vladimir Putin.”

Three other sources said the devastation of apartment complexes they saw was grim, but the resilience of people who remain and are carrying on with their lives was remarkable.

Galadza was struck, too, by the realization that “I wouldn’t be coming back if it wasn’t for the people who stopped the Russians right here, because the next stop was Kyiv.”

Trudeau and his group were then whisked back to Kyiv where he went to the Canadian embassy to raise the flag, signalling the return of Galadza and a soft reopening of diplomatic work. A couple of Canadian embassy staff had already returned 48 hours earlier.

However, immigration and consular services will continue to be delivered by the rest of the 20 Canadian staff who moved first to Lviv ahead of the invasion, and then onto Poland. Eventually, she hopes, some 55 local hires will be brought back, too.

The ambassador intends to concentrate on co-ordinating Ottawa’s response to Ukraine’s needs, and communicating with Ukrainians. “They are in an existential battle,” she said.

After a troublesome flag-raising (the cords on the first two poles broke), Trudeau went to the Mariinsky Palace, once partly destroyed by a bomb in the Second World War, now restored and used by the president to host foreign delegations.

Zelenskyy and Trudeau met alone for 45 minutes, with the aide of interpreters, though Zelenskyy has proven himself a formidable communicator in English since the war began.

Their staff then joined for an expanded meeting, before Zelenskyy and Trudeau sat side-by-side for the G7 leaders’ call — a moment one source described as “important” for the Ukrainian leader as well as the G7, a concrete signal of solidarity.

In a joint press conference afterwards, Zelenskyy said he is pressing allies for more heavy arms and financial support, including a massive postwar rebuilding package, but made clear he is pleased with Canada’s efforts to date, saying they are second only to the U.S. in support for Ukraine.

There was a moment of public levity when a service dog getting a hero’s award barked at Trudeau.

But Zelenskyy appeared to only really relax at a private dinner later, where the two leaders and their top staff had a glass of wine and a fine five-course meal. On the menu: Kherson tomatoes with cheese; red trout pie with mushrooms; Ukrainian borscht or “borahch”; a choice of chicken Kyiv or fried Black Sea perch fillet. And for dessert: varenyky with cherries (a kind of cherry-filled perogy) or lemon cake.

When the dinner was over, the prime minister travelled by overnight train back to Rzeszow and left for Ottawa around 10 a.m. Polish time Monday, landing shortly after noon Ottawa time.

The Canadians had announced $50 million in more military aid, plus millions more in humanitarian and financial assistance, and pledged to stand by Ukraine.

Galadza says, in her short time back in Kyiv, she has heard “from regular people how important it is, how overjoyed they are, to have us back, because it gives them confidence. These are people, they are looking for hope.”

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

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