Politics

How Justin Trudeau's people arranged his whirlwind visit to a Ukraine at war

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau surprised a lot of people with his unannounced weekend visit to Ukraine for an in-person meeting with President Volodymyr Zelensky. While government officials managed to keep the trip a secret, it still took weeks of planning, according to two senior Canadian government sources who told CBC News how it all came together.

Weeks of planning culminated in a brief visit that couldn't be kept entirely secret

Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland, Foreign Affairs Minister Mélanie Joly, Canada's Ambassador to Ukraine Larisa Galadza and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau raise the flag over the Canadian embassy in Kyiv on Sunday, May 8, 2022 (Murray Brewster/CBC)

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau surprised a lot of people with his unannounced weekend visit to Ukraine for an in-person meeting with President Volodymyr Zelensky.

While government officials managed to keep the trip a secret, it still took weeks of planning, according to multiple senior Canadian government sources who told CBC News how it all came together.

CBC News is not naming the sources because they are not authorized to speak publicly about these matters.

The sources said Trudeau told his staff he wanted to go to Ukraine to show solidarity with the country and its people as they continue to defy the odds against invading Russian forces. Trudeau also said he wanted to see the devastation wrought by Russia with his own eyes.

Canada's absence from Ukraine had been noted within the diplomatic community. After many other western leaders made the dangerous trek into the war zone in recent weeks, pressure was mounting on Canada to make a gesture of its own.

To prepare for a possible trip, staff in the Prime Minister's Office (PMO) reached out to international counterparts who had completed similar trips to find out what those experiences had been like.

The sources said PMO contacted staff members in the offices of European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson.

Von der Leyen was one of the first European leaders to visit Ukraine after the invasion; she travelled to Kyiv for a meeting with President Zelensky on April 8. She also toured a mass grave site in the suburb of Bucha, where investigators continue to collect evidence of alleged Russian war crimes.

In this image provided by the Ukrainian Presidential Press Office, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, right, and Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson walk during their meeting in downtown Kyiv, Ukraine on Saturday, April 9, 2022. (Ukrainian Presidential Office/The Associated Press)

Prime Minister Johnson visited Kyiv for an-in person meeting with President Zelensky on April 9.

The sources said that, based on those conversations, PMO officials identified two key factors they would have to become comfortable with before planning the prime minister's trip to Ukraine.

The first factor was security: even though Trudeau would travel with his security detail, the entire delegation would be in the hands of the Ukrainian military.

Secret missions, security risks

The second had to do with secrecy, or the lack of it: once Trudeau arrived in Ukraine, it would no longer be possible to keep the trip confidential.

The routine practice for planning a world leader's visit to a dangerous location is to keep the trip a secret until the leader has left that high-risk environment.

For example, as U.S. president, Donald Trump made a surprise visit to U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan for Thanksgiving in 2019. Journalists were required to keep the trip confidential to protect Trump.

In 2018, Prime Minister Trudeau made a surprise visit to Canadian military aircrew members taking part in the UN mission in Mali.

The PMO knew there was a risk of Trudeau's trip to Kyiv being reported in real-time, presenting an added security risk. Prime Minister Johnson's visit to Ukraine was unexpectedly exposed on social media during his meeting with President Zelensky.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelensky arrive for a news conference in Kyiv, Ukraine on May 8, 2022. (Valentyn Ogirenko/Reuters)

A trip to Ukraine by U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin also was revealed unexpectedly ahead of time, when President Zelensky announced he would be meeting with the U.S. delegation during a press conference the night before their planned visit.

Trudeau's visit was a closely-guarded secret. Canadian media outlets, including CBC News, were made aware of Trudeau's trip only after he left Canada, on the condition that it not be reported until it was made public.

The prime minister and his delegation left Ottawa on Saturday morning aboard a Canadian Air Force Airbus CC-150 for an eight-hour flight to Rzeszow in southeastern Poland. From there, said a senior government source, they took a train to Kyiv's central railway station. Once in Ukraine, they travelled in a motorcade convoy of two dozen vehicles, including police escorts and an ambulance.

Travelling as part of Trudeau's small delegation were Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland, Foreign Affairs Minister Mélanie Joly, National Security and Intelligence Adviser Jody Thomas, Chief of Staff Katie Telford, Deputy Chief of Staff Brian Clow and photographer Adam Scotti.

JTF2 on board

A senior Canadian government source speaking to CBC News on the condition of confidentiality confirmed that the delegation was accompanied by Joint Task Force 2 (JTF2) of the Canadian Special Operations Forces Command — an elite unit that works in counter-terrorism, protective services and special reconnaissance.

The trip was carried out under a news blackout; uncharacteristically, the prime minister travelled with no Canadian media entourage. Reporters from news organizations on the ground were not given any details of Trudeau's itinerary and were told officially that the Ukrainians were in charge of security and the visit overall.

But a senior Ukrainian official speaking on background told CBC News Trudeau's trip to Irpin to visit the shattered community was arranged directly by the Canadians through Ukraine's interior ministry. Both local media and international media were aware of the details and were able to capture the moment.

WATCH: Former Joint Task Force 2 commander on Trudeau's Ukraine trip

What security planning went into Trudeau's trip to Ukraine?

2 months ago
Duration 5:12
Former Joint Task Force 2 commander Steve Day joins Power & Politics to discuss security measures for a trip like Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's recent visit to Ukraine.

In the end, the embargo was broken when photos of Trudeau's visit to Irpin — heavily damaged by Russia's attempt to take the capital Kyiv at the start of the war — were posted on social media by the city's mayor, who met with the prime minister.

Back in Ottawa, as the pictures started circulating on Twitter, Trudeau's director of communications Cameron Ahmad issued a statement confirming the trip.

One senior source said the decision to travel was in flux right up to the moment of departure, due to the changing nature of security in a war zone. The source said the team had to be nimble and prepared to adjust.

One source said there was no specific reason for travelling to Ukraine on that specific date. Much of the coordination depended on Ukrainian officials having the time and resources to host a delegation, the source said.

Trudeau's visit also came on the same day that G7 countries were set to discuss the war in Ukraine. Trudeau and Zelensky sat together in Kyiv for the hour-long virtual call with the leaders of G7 nations.

Trudeau's trip coincided with other high-profile visits by U.S. First Lady Jill Biden and Bono and The Edge from the rock group U2.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Katie Simpson is a foreign correspondent with CBC News based in Washington. Prior to joining the team in D.C. she spent six years covering Parliament Hill in Ottawa and nearly a decade covering local and provincial issues in Toronto.

With files from Murray Brewster and Phil Ling

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