Trudeau commits $500M more in military aid during surprise visit to Kyiv
'We need more friends like Canada,' Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy says
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau paid a surprise visit to Kyiv on Saturday and announced $500 million more in Canadian military aid as Ukraine has stepped up its long-anticipated counteroffensive to drive Russia's army out of occupied eastern and southern regions of the battered country.
Earlier in the day, Trudeau, who was accompanied on the trip by Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland, met with President Volodymyr Zelenskyy.
Trudeau said that since last year, Canada has committed over $8 billion in funding assistance to Ukraine, including over $1 billion in military aid, since the start of the Russian invasion early in 2022.
The prime minister offered no details on how the new funding would be spent. However, he indicated Canada would also extend its military training mission — known as Operation Unifier — until 2026 and offered to help train Ukrainian pilots, along with other countries, on the F-16 fighter aircraft.
Back in Canada, the federal government said it intends to seize a Russian-registered cargo aircraft that landed in Toronto on Feb. 27, 2022, days after Russia's invasion of Ukraine. That same day, Transport Minister Omar Alghabra announced the closing of Canada's airspace to all Russian aircraft in response to the invasion, and the plane has been grounded ever since.
If seized, it would become the first physical asset confiscated under Canada's updated sanctions system.
Counteroffensive actions underway: Zelenskyy
At a news conference alongside Trudeau, Zelenskyy said counteroffensive and defensive actions were underway, asserting his top commanders were in a "positive" mindset as their troops engaged in intense fighting along the front line.
Zelenskyy responded to a question about Russian President Vladimir Putin's comment a day earlier that Ukraine's counteroffensive had started, and Ukrainian forces were taking "significant losses."
The Ukrainian leader said "the counteroffensive, defensive actions are taking place in Ukraine. I will not speak about which stage or phase they are in.
"I am in touch with our commanders of different directions every day," he added, citing the names of five of Ukraine's top military leaders. "Everyone is positive. Pass this on to Putin."
On Friday, Putin made reference to the counteroffensive in a video published on his Telegram channel.
"We can definitely state that this Ukrainian offensive has begun," he said.
Russia 'will be held accountable,' Trudeau says
Zelenskyy's government is struggling to assess the damage and mount further downstream evacuations following the destruction of the giant Nova Kakhovka dam in southern Ukraine.
Both Kyiv and Moscow blame each other for the collapse, which U.S. intelligence agencies and a Norwegian research foundation — citing seismic data — said on Friday was caused by some kind of explosion.
Also on Saturday, Canada committed $10 million in humanitarian aid and promised to redirect another previously announced $37 million toward helping Ukraine manage and recover from the effects of the breach.
Trudeau added that along with sanctions against Russia on over "2,500 entities and individuals ... I'm announcing new sanctions against 24 individuals and 17 entities."
Trudeau blamed Russia for the destruction of the dam, initially calling it a result of the invasion, but then pointed the finger directly at Moscow.
"Russia is responsible and will be held accountable," said the prime minister, whose trip to Ukraine was planned under a strict news blackout.
Zelenskyy said it was a pleasure to host him.
"We're very grateful that we have such good friends of Ukraine and your people show such big support for all of our people in Canada ... for refugees that are now in Canada and also for the Ukrainians in Ukraine fighting for freedom," said Zelenskyy, sitting across the table from Trudeau.
"We need more friends like Canada."
The visit has taken Trudeau away from Ottawa as the political crisis over alleged Chinese foreign interference in the last two federal elections took a dramatic turn with the abrupt resignation of special rapporteur and former governor general David Johnston.
It also comes after a week of intense efforts to squelch raging wildfires in Quebec and elsewhere that have reduced air quality for tens of millions of people in Canada and the U.S.
Trudeau started his Kyiv visit by attending a sombre wreath-laying at the Wall of Remembrance, a unique, deeply personal collection of photos and inscriptions marking those who've fallen in the Russian-Ukrainian war. On his way to the wall, Trudeau at one point crouched down low to look inside one of the frames of burnt-out Russian tanks and military vehicles that fill a public square.
Moments before the wreath-laying ceremony, a military funeral procession passed by. A coffin and mourners dressed head to toe in black marched into St. Michael's Golden-Domed Monastery in central Kyiv to the mournful sound of bugles.
It was a stark reminder that this is a country at war.
'We see your heroism': Zelenskyy to soldiers
This is the second time Trudeau has made an unannounced visit to Ukraine since Russia began its large-scale invasion in February 2022.
In his last visit just over a year ago, he reopened the Canadian Embassy in Kyiv and met Zelenskyy in person for the first time since the war began. Trudeau and Zelenskyy also met last month on the margins of the G7 summit in Hiroshima, Japan, where the president continued his campaign to shore up support among Western allies for the defence of his country.
Before the Canadian delegation's arrival Saturday, Zelenskyy briefed the prime ministers of Japan and the Netherlands on the rescue operations in the south and what kind of humanitarian assistance is needed.
They also spoke about further defence co-operation, Zelenskyy said in his nighttime address to his people.
Zelenskyy addressed these comments to the soldiers.
"We see your heroism, and we are grateful to you for every minute of your life — a life that is truly the life of Ukraine," he said.
Heightened fighting could go in a 'few directions'
Oleksandr Musiienko, head of the Center for Military and Legal Studies in Kyiv, said he believes the intense fighting of the last week signals the "beginning" of the long-awaited drive.
What the world is witnessing, he said, are probing attacks looking for weaknesses in the Russian lines. He insisted the decisive blows are yet to come.
"I suppose it could [go in a] few directions — two or three directions," said Musiienko, an adviser to the former defence minister.
The destruction of the hydroelectric dam and the resulting flooding along the Dnipro River gave the Russians a modicum of military relief in the southern region near Kherson, where the river has become wider and not as easily a passage for Ukrainian forces, he said.
Musiienko said it has allowed Moscow to move troops that would have been normally guarding the region and move them elsewhere.
"They did it just to move their forces. They just took them from the left bank of [the city of] Kherson and just moved the Zaporizhia direction and protected the defence lines there."
With files from The Canadian Press and The Associated Press