Visiting four European countries over four days, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau met face-to-face with about a dozen like-minded leaders – far closer to the war in Ukraine than his office on Parliament Hill.
Some sit-down selections were obvious, such as talking with the Polish president and prime minister about the 1.5 million Ukrainian refugees who have flooded their border. Or meetings with Latvian and NATO leadership alongside a visit to the Latvian military base where more than 500 Canadian soldiers work to deter a potential Russian threat.
Other meetings would not necessarily have been on anyone’s Trudeau-in-Europe bingo card: a sit down with U.S. Vice-President Kamala Harris in Warsaw, Harris described it as a coming together “by coincidence or maybe by fate.”
One was an uncommon pairing of three allies — a trilateral meeting and joint press conference for Trudeau, U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson and the Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte.
So after stops in London, Riga, Berlin and Warsaw, what did the Prime Minister actually accomplish?
“Yes, it’s been about solidarity and alignment with leaders,” Trudeau said in answer to a Global News question about the trip’s outcome at a closing news conference.
“More than that, it’s about concrete support.”
As examples, Trudeau referenced additional humanitarian aid announced in Poland, a further $117 million to finance the sped-up processes to get more Ukrainians to Canada as the government has promised. Canada has been criticized for moving too slowly.
Embassy staff in cities Trudeau visited are flooded by hundreds of people who knock on the door for help.
He referenced the government’s commitment to NATO, by extending Operation REASSURANCE in Europe past 2023 with no end date.
And, he said, it’s about “bringing home the reality of what Europe is facing to Canadians” who are following his trip abroad.
Canada announced more sanctions on Russians this week, culminating in adding well-known oligarch Roman Abramovich to the list on Friday following the U.K.’s lead. The Prime Minister has repeatedly pointed to what he calls the “devastating” impacts sanctions have had on Russia.
Before the trip, government officials speaking on background said the goal was also about pushing ideas forward, and putting heads together to come up with new ideas to push back on Russia. The aim was “maximum impact.”
But if any of the myriad meetings devised a new impactful solution that could stop Russian President Vladimir Putin, no one is talking about them.
The Deputy Prime Minister went as far as to confirm new ideas were being discussed behind closed doors — and they would stay there for now.
“Yes, there are,” said Chrystia Freeland Wednesday in Berlin. “We need to work on them with our partners because that’s how we can be most effective.”
Freeland says Ukrainians themselves play a “very big role” in the effort among allies. Freeland, whose mother was Ukrainian and who speaks the language fluently, is in regular daily contact with senior Ukrainian officials.
Freeland was one of a handful of ministers who joined the Prime Minister for parts of his trip, amid solo visits to other European destinations to discuss Ukraine: Defence Minister Anita Anand, Foreign Affairs Minister Melanie Joly and International Development Minister Harjit Sajjan.
Behind the scenes, government officials point to meetings between Trudeau and new German Chancellor Olaf Scholz as especially useful.
The pair have met before, but this was the first official meeting in Scholz’ new role as Chancellor. This year’s G7 summit will be held in Germany.
The country has made major moves against Russia in a matter of weeks. In an about-face on decades of pacifist policy in the wake of the Second World War, it’s shipping weapons to Ukraine. And Germany suspended the $11 billion Nord Stream 2 pipeline project.
The country, like many places in Europe, is still reliant on Russian gas, and a large part of the bilateral meeting had to do with energy.
“What they are prepared to do is an indication of what the West is prepared to do. So Germany is the most important country in the whole dilemma,” said former diplomat Jeremy Kinsman.
Trudeau and Scholz spent three hours together Wednesday evening, according to a senior government source, longer than usual, especially on a trip with such a busy schedule.
The intelligence exchange and better understanding of each other during a major crisis is hugely valuable, according to the source speaking on background.
In speaking with allies, there may not always be real tangible solutions developed in one meeting, “but that exchange of information, relationship building will allow for a better, faster generating of ideas.”
Former diplomat, G7 sherpa and current Senator Peter Boehm says a lot happens behind closed doors, where face-to-face contact is key.
“You cannot do everything on a platform that is virtual. You can’t go into the corner with your fellow leader, whether it’s Boris Johnson or Mark Rutte and say, ‘Look, can we start thinking about long-term aid and humanitarian flows?'” Boehm said.
“‘What about a global food crisis considering that Ukraine is the seventh largest grain exporter in the world? What will happen in the Middle East?’”
Boehm says these are conversations that world leaders and senior officials are better off having in person than with the “constrained platform” of a virtual meeting.
“It’s also a lot more secure, because there’s an awful lot of hacking going on in the world today,” he said.
Boehm calls the Russian invasion of Ukraine the “biggest crisis” he’s seen in his decades of experience. He says what’s remarkable is how aligned both G7 and NATO countries have been in their support.
NDP foreign affairs critic Heather McPherson says it’s important the Prime Minister and ministers made the trip during a “pivotal moment in time.”
McPherson visited Poland last week along with Minister of Foreign Affairs Mélanie Joly to see what was happening on the ground and speak to groups helping with humanitarian aid.
But she wants to see more action.
The NDP have long been calling for fixes to the immigration process, and want the government to temporarily drop the visa requirement to get Ukrainians to Canada faster.
McPherson is also calling for long-term humanitarian aid to help Ukraine rebuild — something that was discussed around several tables during the Prime Minister’s trip this week.
“It’s important he’s there,” she said. “Should they and could have done more, and can do more? One hundred per cent.”
Meanwhile, Conservative criticism focused on a lack of movement on defence spending, calling on the Liberals to prioritize the defence procurement strategy.
“Canada can and should be doing more to help the people of Ukraine,” said Conservative MP Laila Goodridge.
Trudeau was asked several times this week whether he would boost the defence budget — Canada is far from meeting the 2 per cent of GDP spending target set out by NATO. He left the door open to more spending, but didn’t make any commitments.
For some Ukrainian refugees, hearing that world leaders are coming together to discuss their plight is valuable on its own.
“It really matters now,” said Kate Kliuchnyk from outside the Warsaw central train station.
The 19-year-old left bomb-torn Kharkiv with her mother and two younger sisters a few days ago when a bomb hit close enough to their apartment to make the building shake. She’s scared for her father and grandparents left behind.
“I really hope that the war will end, that our country will be supported by other countries,” she said.
— with files from Crystal Oag