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 multiple senior Canadian government sources who told CBC News how it all came about.
CBC News is not citing the sources because they are not authorized to speak about these matters publicly.
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 for himself the devastation Russia wrought.
Canada’s absence from Ukraine had been noted within the diplomatic community. After many other Western leaders made the perilous trek into the war zone in recent weeks, pressure mounted on Canada to make a gesture of its own.
To prepare for a potential trip, the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) staff reached out to international colleagues who had taken similar trips to find out what those experiences had been like.
The sources said PMO has contacted staff 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 traveled to Kiev on April 8 to meet with President Zelensky. She also visited a mass grave in the suburb of Bucha, where investigators continue to gather evidence of alleged Russian war crimes.
Prime Minister Johnson visited Kiev for a personal meeting with President Zelensky on April 9.
The sources said that based on those talks, PMO officials identified two key factors they should feel comfortable with before planning the prime minister’s trip to Ukraine.
The first factor was security: Although 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 lack thereof: once Trudeau arrived in Ukraine, it would no longer be possible to keep the trip confidential.
The routine practice of 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 in 2019 for Thanksgiving. Journalists had to keep the trip confidential to protect Trump.
In 2018, Prime Minister Trudeau paid a surprise visit to Canadian military aircrew members participating in the UN mission in Mali.
The PMO knew there was a risk that Trudeau’s trip to Kiev would be reported in real time, posing an additional security risk. Prime Minister Johnson’s visit to Ukraine unexpectedly came to light on social media during his meeting with President Zelensky.
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 press conference the night before their scheduled visit.
Trudeau’s visit was a closely guarded secret. Canadian media, including CBC News, were only made aware of Trudeau’s trip after he left Canada, on the condition that it would not be reported before it was made public.
The Prime Minister and his delegation departed 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 high-ranking government source said, they took the train to Kiev Central Station. Once in Ukraine, they traveled in a motorcade convoy of two dozen vehicles, including police escorts and an ambulance.
Trudeau’s small delegation included Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland, Secretary of State 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 who spoke to CBC News on 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 working in counter-terrorism, protective services and special reconnaissance.
The trip was conducted under a news blackout; unusually, the prime minister traveled without Canadian media entourage. Reporters from local news organizations were not given details of Trudeau’s itinerary and were officially told that the Ukrainians were in charge of security and the visit in general.
But a senior Ukrainian official speaking in the background told CBC News that Trudeau’s trip to Irpin to visit the shattered community had been arranged directly by the Canadians through Ukraine’s Interior Ministry. Both local media and international media were aware of the details and managed to capture the moment.
WATCH: Former Joint Task Force 2 Commander on Trudeau’s Trip to Ukraine
The embargo was eventually broken when photos of Trudeau’s visit to Irpin – badly damaged by Russia’s attempt to take the capital Kiev 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 photos began circulating on Twitter, Trudeau’s communications director Cameron Ahmad released a statement confirming the trip.
A senior source said the decision to travel until departure was in flux, due to the changing nature of security in a war zone. The source said the team needed to be agile and prepared to adapt.
A source said there was no specific reason to travel to Ukraine on that specific date. Much of the coordination relied on Ukrainian officials who had the time and resources to host a delegation, the source said.
Trudeau’s visit also came on the same day that the G7 countries were due to discuss the war in Ukraine. Trudeau and Zelensky sat together in Kiev for the one-hour virtual meeting with the leaders of the G7 countries.
Trudeau’s trip coincided with other high-profile visits from US First Lady Jill Biden and Bono and The Edge of the rock group U2.