Shock and horror turned to anger on Thursday as Canada and its allies responded to Russia’s unprecedented invasion of Ukraine with a barrage of new sanctions targeting the Russian economy and its leaders that they hoped would avert an all-out war.
Yet after having already warned Russian President Vladimir Putin for weeks that such a punishment was coming if he attacked Ukraine, it remained even more uncertain what, if anything, short of an armed confrontation would force him to reverse course.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced Canada’s response to Russia’s invasion in an early afternoon news conference in Ottawa, hours after the first Russian missiles began to rain down on cities across Ukraine and troops started to cross the border.
The prime minister accused Putin of sparking the greatest threat to European stability since the Second World War, and said the invasion of Ukraine represented an attack on democracy, international law, human rights and freedom.
“Russia’s actions stand in direct opposition to the democratic principles that generations of Canadians have fought to protect,” a determined-looking Trudeau told Canadians during a news conference across the street from Parliament.
“Democracies and democratic leaders everywhere must come together to defend these principles and stand firmly against authoritarianism.”
Thursday’s invasion had been preceded by a Russian military buildup around Ukraine followed by weeks of dialogue and warnings from Trudeau, U.S. President Joe Biden and European leaders about devastating sanctions if Putin ordered an invasion.
As Russian paratroopers reportedly took control of an airport only kilometres from the Ukrainian capital Kyiv and more Russian troops poured into the country after a barrage of early-morning missiles hit sites across Ukraine, the sanctions were unveiled.
Fifty-eight people and entities connected to Russia, including key political leaders, oligarchs and their families as well as the paramilitary organization known as the Wagner Group are being sanctioned by Canada, along with several major Russian banks.
Also on the list are members of the Russian Security, including key cabinet ministers close to Putin.
Canada is also cancelling existing export permits for Russia. Foreign Affairs Minister Mélanie Joly, who earlier summoned Russia’s ambassador for a dressing down at Global Affairs Canada, estimated the permits amounted to $700 million in trade.
“These sanctions are wide-reaching,” said Trudeau, who huddled with other G7 leaders hours earlier. “They will impose severe costs on complicit Russian elites, and they will limit President Putin’s ability to continue funding this unjustified invasion.”
Canada was far from alone in announcing new sanctions on Thursday, as Biden and European leaders also moved to strangle Russia’s financial ability to wage war while punishing Putin and his inner circle.
In the most serious moment of his tenure in the White House thus far, Biden insisted Thursday that the world was united in its opposition to Putin and his “naked aggression” as he detailed further sanctions.
“I want to be clear: the United States is not doing this alone,” he said, describing a broad coalition of international partners comprising well over half of the global economy, including Canada.
He also acknowledged the potential economic impact on the U.S., which is already reeling from inflationary pressures and supply chain disruptions brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, but underscored the importance of everyone hardening their resolve.
“I know this is hard, and that Americans are already hurting. I will do everything in my power to limit the pain the American people are feeling at the gas pump,” he said.
“But this aggression cannot go unanswered. If it did, the consequences for America would be much worse. America stands up to bullies. We stand up for freedom. This is who we are.”
Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland, who is of Ukrainian descent, spoke directly to average Ukrainians and Russians in their own languages, reassuring the first that they were not forgotten and telling the latter that Canada’s fight isn’t with them.
“Ukraine is not yet dead,” Freeland said in Ukrainian before switching to Russian and saying: “Our quarrel is not with the Russian people — it is with President Putin and those around him who have made the choice to threaten a sovereign democracy.”
Freeland later acknowledged that Thursday may have marked the start of a new, more dangerous era in which the rules and norms established after the Second World War outlining how countries should act and behave have been thrown out.
In a rare show of unity, political leaders across Canada set aside their differences to condemn Putin’s actions and voice support for Ukraine, including interim Conservative leader Candice Bergen, NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh and Ontario Premier Doug Ford.
“Putin’s contemptible aggression and invasion of Ukraine is unacceptable,” Bergen said in a statement. “His attack on the Ukrainian people and their democratically elected government is despicable.”
Singh called on the government to immediately impose severe economic sanctions “where it hurts Putin the most,” including by targeting Russian oligarchs who support him and kicking Russia from the global banking system.
The Ukrainian Canadian Congress, which represents 1.3 million Canadians of Ukrainian descent, echoed that call for Russia to be tossed from the banking system as part of “devastating” economic sanctions.
“Ukraine needs weapons with which to defend itself right now,” UCC executive director Ihor Michalchyshyn added in a statement. “Most importantly they need anti-air systems like Stinger missiles and other air defence and naval defence systems.”
Ukrainian chargé d’affaires Andrii Bukvych, meanwhile, urged the severing of diplomatic relations with Russia and for NATO to enforce a no-fly zone over his country to prevent Russian aerial bombardments.
“We do understand there is a high toll that the free world economy of Western economies will pay for deterring Russia, for supporting Ukraine,” the Ukrainian envoy added.
“But I believe that this toll is still much more less than having World War Three, which will inevitably take place unless Putin will be stopped in Ukraine.”
Yet despite the stakes and unity, Canada and NATO have made clear they have no plan to send troops into Ukraine to fight Russia. They have instead reinforced the military alliance’s presence in eastern Europe in case the conflict expands beyond Ukraine.
Biden made it abundantly clear on Thursday that while American forces have been deployed to backstop NATO forces in the area, the U.S. would not be sending troops to confront Putin’s armies directly.
Defence Minister Anita Anand said 3,400 Canadian Armed Forces members are being put on standby in case they need to deploy in a hurry. Those forces are on top of the 460 additional troops promised to NATO operations in Europe earlier this week.
Meanwhile, Trudeau announced Canada has arranged for the safe passage of any Canadian citizens, permanent residents and their families still in Ukraine through land borders with Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania and Moldova.
The federal government will be prioritizing immigration applications for Ukrainians who want to come to Canada and is launching a dedicated telephone line for anyone who has any urgent questions about emigrating from Ukraine, he added.
— Mike Blanchfield and Lee Berthiaume, The Canadian Press