Russia can choose negotiations or sanctions, Canada's defence minister says in Ukraine
Canada withdraws non-essential personnel from embassy in Ukraine
Defence Minister Anita Anand arrived in a snowy Kyiv on Sunday and echoed the warnings of Western allies about the looming threat of an invasion by Russia amid an increasingly frosty international deadlock over the crisis in eastern Europe.
The Ukrainian government has been signalling that military action on the part of Moscow is not imminent and that Western allies need to dial back the alarmist talk.
The country's president, Volodymyr Zelensky, on Friday tried to buck up the spirits of his people, and Foreign Affairs Minister Dmytro Kuleba was quoted in a statement on Saturday calling on the West to remain "vigilant and firm in contacts with the Russian side."
But he also asked them to "refrain from steps that could fuel anxiety" in Ukrainian society and "undermine the financial stability" of the country.
U.S. Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin said Russia has put in place all of the elements for an invasion of Ukraine, which a top Pentagon official said would be "horrific."
Anand didn't use any inflammatory language but said Canada remains concerned and stands by the stark assessments of allies.
"It is difficult for me to say what intelligence the Ukrainian government has," said Anand, who noted she had only just arrived and not yet met with her counterparts.
"The intelligence we are utilizing is consistent with our allies across the NATO alliance."
Anand said there is "intelligence that is sound, that there is increasing escalation of Russian troops at the Ukrainian border, including in Belarus," adding that "we believe that Russia has a choice, and that choice is to negotiate with a view to de-escalation" or it will "face severe sanctions and consequences."
She said the assessments helped inform the decision to move Canadian military trainers to locations west of the Dnieper River, which divides Ukraine into two parts.
More people leaving Canadian Embassy
Meanwhile, Canada will temporarily withdraw non-essential employees and their families from the Canadian Embassy in Ukraine, Global Affairs Canada said in a statement on Sunday.
Last Tuesday, the Canadian government said it's withdrawing the family members of diplomatic staff stationed in Ukraine amid heightened fears of a Russian invasion.
"As announced earlier this week, Canada will be reinforcing the team at the Canadian Embassy in Kyiv, Ukraine, with officials with expertise in areas such as security sector reform, conflict management, democratic reform, consular services and diplomacy," Sunday's statement said.
It said the embassy remains open for Canadians who need assistance.
Anand's visit with top Ukrainian officials, promised last week after Canada renewed its military training mission in the embattled country, comes as British Prime Minister Boris Johnson pledged major reinforcements to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization should an invasion take place.
The western military alliance has been canvassing members and making preparations to bolster defences in nations bordering Ukraine and Belarus, should Moscow opt for military action to end the stalemate, which has seen Russia demanding guarantees of no expansion of NATO membership eastward.
U.K. considering deployment
On Saturday, Johnson said the United Kingdom is considering making a major deployment to help strengthen NATO's eastern flank. Britain leads one of the alliance's forward battle groups already deployed in Estonia.
Canada leads a multinational battle group based in Latvia, but it has not said whether it will reinforce its presence should hostilities erupt in Ukraine.
The Biden administration in Washington is committed to sending more U.S. troops to eastern Europe, as well.
Anand said Canada is also considering what further contributions it can make to NATO if there is military action, but she cautioned that decisions haven't been made and discussion is "ongoing."
Officials in the diplomatic community, speaking on background to CBC News late last week, said both Canada and the U.K. remain in close contact with each other over the crisis.
Separately, Britain is also looking at changing its sanctioning regime to make it more flexible and bring it better in line with what partners, such as Canada, have already.
Johnson is reportedly going to visit eastern Europe next week.
The Liberal government of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau last week announced a renewal and expansion of the Canadian military training mission in Ukraine, known as Operation Unifier. It also intends to provide a package of non-lethal military aid, including flak jackets, metal detectors, binoculars and medical kits, among other things.
The Ukraine government had asked for defensive weapons, and while the Canadian government says it has not ruled out the possibility, no arms were part of a shipment of supplies that were slated to leave this weekend.
Anand's visit coincided Sunday with a rally in central Kyiv by members of a civil society group that is demanding the Ukrainian government not surrender territory or its ambition for closer ties with Europe. Several hundred people rallied for the purpose of thanking allied nations for their support.
The activists are opposed to implementing portions of the Minsk peace agreement, which was supposed to end the fighting between Russia-backed proxies and the Ukrainian army in the country's east.