As it debates whether to send weapons to Ukraine, the federal government is taking into account Russia’s quest for “excuses” to invade, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said today.
Calls to ship defensive weapons to the government in Kyiv grew louder this week after Britain revealed it had sent anti-tank weapons to Ukraine to help it fight off a possible Russian invasion. The U.K. was following the lead of the United States, which sent its own package of arms last fall.
Foreign Affairs Minister Mélanie Joly heard repeated pleas for defensive arms from top Ukrainian officials during her whirlwind trip to the country this week. She made no public commitments.
For months, Trudeau’s government has been reviewing Ukraine’s request for defensive weapons, such as anti-aircraft systems, surveillance systems and reconnaissance technology.
While the Americans and the British have been hawkish about arming Ukraine, other NATO allies such as Germany have taken a more cautious approach to avoid antagonizing Moscow.
Trudeau acknowledged today that, as it considers Ukraine’s request for weapons, his government is considering the risk of giving Russia a pretext for invasion. In French, the prime minister said his government fears an armed conflict will erupt.
“One of the things that we have seen is that Russia is looking for excuses or reasons to continue and even escalate its aggression against Ukraine,” Trudeau said.
“We’re looking at many different factors when we make decisions on how to best support the people of Ukraine. The bottom line is we will be there to continue supporting the people of Ukraine through multiple levels and layers of support.”
U.S. President Joe Biden made a similar prediction on Wednesday.
Speaking at a news conference to mark his one-year anniversary in office, Biden said he believes Russia is preparing to take action on Ukraine, though he doesn’t think the Russian president has made a final decision.
“I’m not so sure that he is certain what is he going to do,” Biden said. “My guess is he will move in.”
Trudeau’s comments came just hours after HMCS Montreal set sail from Halifax for the Mediterranean and the Black Sea — the latest such warship to deploy to the region as part of Canada’s commitments to the NATO alliance.
In a statement, the Department of National Defence said that Defence Minister Anita Anand spoke this week with her Ukrainian counterpart, Oleksii Reznikov. The issue of defensive weapons was not mentioned in the readout of their conversation.
The Canadian Centre for Cyber Security on Wednesday also advised the country’s cybersecurity community “to bolster their awareness of and protection against Russian state-sponsored cyber threats.”
The Ukrainian government was hacked late last week in an attack that Kyiv said has signs of Russian involvement.
Canada has had 200 military trainers in Ukraine for several years, instructing both regular and reserve units of the Ukrainian Army. Today, Trudeau again signalled his government is prepared to extend the mission when it expires in March; that extension has not yet been given formal approval.
“It is a continued commitment that we have, and when there’s an announcement to make on extension, we will be making it,” he said.
Lt.-Col. Luc-Frederic Gilbert, commander of the Canadian troops in Ukraine, acknowledged in an interview with CBC News that contingency plans to evacuate the mission have been drawn up. He refused to discuss details, citing operational security.
The prime minister downplayed the significance of evacuation planning.
“It is important and responsible that we be planning for multiple contingencies, and while I won’t get into operational details, I can tell you the Canadian Armed Forces, the Canadian Foreign Service, our multilateral partners, we’re all looking at a range of possibilities and contingencies to make sure that we are best able to keep people safe and support the Ukrainian people,” he said.
Andrew Rasiulis, a defence expert with the Canadian Global Affairs Institute, said Canada’s cautious approach on weapons shipments to Ukraine stands in stark contrast with its previous hard line.
He said Canada was among the first countries to go into Ukraine with trainers and has the largest foreign contingent on the ground.
Rasiulis said the federal government is wise to focus on diplomacy at this point.