Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Friday his government does not want to see an escalation of the Russo-Ukrainian war that would pull NATO forces into “direct conflict” with Russia in eastern Europe.
Speaking to reporters at a transit announcement in Mississauga, Ont., Trudeau said Canada and its allies are focused on delivering economic body-blows to the Russian economy as payback for the invasion — and are not going to establish a no-fly zone over Ukraine.
A NATO-enforced no-fly zone would mean Western forces would be responsible for keeping Russian warplanes out of the skies over Ukraine. That could result in direct combat between NATO forces and the Russian military — a dramatic escalation of the war.
So far, Western countries like Canada have been imposing sanctions and sending lethal aid to help the Ukrainians carry out their own fight against Russian President Vladimir Putin and his troops.
“The thing that we have so far avoided, and will continue to need to avoid, is a situation in which NATO’s forces are in direct conflict with Russian soldiers. That would be a level of escalation that is unfortunate,” Trudeau said.
“We will continue to impose punishing consequences on Putin and his cronies in the Kremlin and on the Russian people until they understand just how terrible a mistake Putin has just made.”
At a lengthy press conference with reporters in Kyiv on Thursday, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky pleaded with NATO countries to establish a no-fly zone — or to at least send aircraft that could be used by Ukrainian fighter pilots.
“I hope the sky will be shut down. If you don’t have strength and courage to do that, then give me the planes. Wouldn’t that be fair?” Zelensky said.
“I say every day, if you cannot shut the sky now, then give us the timeline when you will do it. If you now cannot provide the timeline, tell us how many people have to die?”
Trudeau also ruled out sending Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) jets to Ukraine, saying military personnel there wouldn’t know how to properly use them.
“The Ukrainian military has trained up on Soviet-style MiGs and fighter jets that Canada simply does not have,” he said.
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As Ukraine’s situation continues to deteriorate, Trudeau announced he will leave for Europe on Sunday to meet with leaders and officials in the United Kingdom, Latvia, Germany and Poland.
Canada and the U.K. have been working in lockstep over the last two weeks — pressuring other countries to further tighten the screws on the Russian economy by removing Russian banks from the SWIFT interbank payment system, closing airspace to Russian civilian aircraft and imposing punishing sanctions on top Kremlin officials, Russian oligarchs and major Russian businesses.
Canadian forces have long been stationed in Latvia as part of Operation Reassurance, which has placed CAF personnel in central and eastern Europe to carry out assurance and deterrence measures.
Unlike Ukraine, Latvia is a NATO country — which means treaty alliance members would be obliged to defend it should Putin push his forces further into eastern Europe.
Trudeau’s opposition to a NATO-led no-fly zone in Europe follows recent comments made by Foreign Affairs Minister Mélanie Joly.
In an interview with the Toronto Star, Joly said Canada and its partners “need to make sure that we’re not triggering an international conflict.”
Joly said Putin’s “irrationality” would make a wider war especially dangerous and the focus should remain on economic penalties.
“There is certainly a level of irrationality with Putin particularly right now. And in order to get to any form of off-ramp or diplomatic solution, we need to be at a level where the pressure on him, and around him, is extremely high,” Joly told the newspaper.
Canada isn’t the only country keen to avoid an all-out war with Russia. Speaking in Brussels after meeting with foreign ministers from NATO members on Friday, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said the alliance has no interest in deploying ground troops to Ukraine or enforcing a no-fly zone — not at this stage of the conflict, at least.
In a direct appeal to Putin, Stoltenberg asked the Russian leader to stop his unprovoked war against Ukraine “immediately and without conditions.”
“NATO is not part of the conflict,” Stoltenberg said. “We do not seek war, conflict with Russia. At the same time, we need to make sure there is no misunderstanding about our commitment to protect all allies.”
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken also said that NATO “seeks no conflict” but is “ready for it.”