How Justin Trudeau’s people arranged his whirlwind visit to a war-torn Ukraine

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau surprised many with his unannounced weekend visit to Ukraine for a face-to-face meeting with President Volodymyr Zelensky.

Although government officials managed to keep the trip a secret, it still took weeks of planning, according to several high-level Canadian government sources who told CBC News how it all unfolded.

CBC News does not name the sources because they are not authorized to speak publicly about these issues.

The sources said Trudeau told his staff he wanted to visit Ukraine to show his 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 with his own eyes the devastation wrought by Russia.

Canada’s absence in Ukraine had been noted within the diplomatic community. After many other Western leaders made the dangerous trip to the war zone in recent weeks, pressure was mounting on Canada to make its own move.

To prepare for a possible trip, Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) staff reached out to international counterparts who had taken similar trips to find out what those experiences were like.

The sources said the PMO had contacted staff from 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 traveled to Kyiv for a meeting with President Zelensky on 8 April. She also visited a mass grave 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 British Prime Minister Boris Johnson walk during their meeting in downtown Kyiv, Ukraine, Saturday, April 9, 2022. (Ukrainian Presidential Office/Associated Press)

Prime Minister Johnson traveled to Kyiv for a face-to-face meeting with President Zelensky on April 9.

The sources said that based on those conversations, Prime Minister’s Office officials identified two key factors they should familiarize themselves with before planning the Prime Minister’s trip to Ukraine.

The first factor was security: even if Trudeau traveled with his security service, the entire delegation would be in the hands of the Ukrainian army.

Secret missions, security risks

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

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

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

In 2018, Prime Minister Trudeau paid a surprise visit to Canadian military crew members serving in the UN mission in Mali.

The Prime Minister’s Office knew there was a risk that Trudeau’s trip to Kyiv would be reported in real time, which presented an additional security risk. Prime Minister Johnson’s visit to Ukraine was unexpectedly revealed on social media during his meeting with President Zelensky.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin attend a meeting with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in Kyiv, Ukraine. (Ukrainian Presidential News Service/Handout/Reuters)

A trip to Ukraine by US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin was also unexpectedly revealed in advance, when President Zelensky announced he would meet the US delegation at a conference release the day before their planned visit.

Trudeau’s visit was a closely guarded secret. Canadian media, including CBC News, only learned of Trudeau’s trip 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, a senior government source said, they took a train to kyiv Central Station. Once in Ukraine, they traveled in a motorcade convoy of two dozen vehicles, including police escorts and an ambulance.

Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland, Foreign Minister Melanie Joly, National Security and Intelligence Advisor Jody Thomas, Chief of Staff Katie Telford, Deputy Chief of Staff Brian Clow and photographer Adam Scotti were among of Trudeau’s small delegation.

JTF2 on board

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

The trip was made under a blackout; Unusually, the Prime Minister traveled without a Canadian media entourage. News agency reporters on the ground were given no details of Trudeau’s itinerary and were officially told that the Ukrainians were responsible for security and for the visit as a whole.

But a senior Ukrainian official speaking on the merits told CBC News that Trudeau’s trip to Irpin to visit the shattered community was arranged directly by Canadians through Ukraine’s Interior Ministry. Local media and international media were aware of the details and were able to capture the moment.

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

Eventually, the embargo was broken when photos of Trudeau’s visit to Irpin – badly damaged by Russia’s attempt to take the capital kyiv at the start of the war – were posted on social media by the mayor of the city, who met the Prime Minister.

Back in Ottawa, as the photos began circulating on Twitter, Trudeau’s director of communications, Cameron Ahmad, released a statement confirming the trip.

A senior source said the decision to travel was in flux until the time of departure, due to the changing nature of security in a war zone. The source said the team must be nimble and ready to adapt.

A source said there was no particular reason to travel to Ukraine on this specific date. Much of the coordination depended on the time and resources of Ukrainian officials to host a delegation, the source said.

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

Trudeau’s trip coincided with other high-profile visits by US First Lady Jill Biden and Bono and The Edge of rock band U2.