Skip to main content

Larisa Galadza, Ambassador of Canada to Ukraine in her residence in Kyiv, on May 11.Anton Skyba/The Globe and Mail

Canada’s recently returned ambassador to Ukraine says closing the Canadian embassy was “the right decision,” though she understands why many Ukrainians felt deserted when Western diplomats left the country as soon as Russia invaded.

Larisa Galadza, who returned to her post in Kyiv on Sunday – the same day Prime Minister Justin Trudeau paid a surprise visit to the country – also pushed back against the Ukrainian government’s suggestion that the West’s early lack of faith in the Ukrainian army cost lives and allowed Russian forces to make gains that could have been prevented if weapons had been delivered sooner.

Canada closed its embassy in Kyiv on Feb. 12 and relocated most of its staff to the western Ukrainian city of Lviv, as Russia massed its forces on three sides of Ukraine. Ms. Galadza and all other non-Ukrainian employees of the embassy then moved from Lviv to Poland on Feb. 24, just hours after Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered his troops to cross the border.

Many pundits in Russia and the West predicted at the time that Russian troops would capture Kyiv within a matter of days. But Ukraine’s military and government not only held firm, they forced a Russian withdrawal from the areas around the capital, allowing for the eventual return of Western embassies, including Canada’s.

The war, which has killed tens of thousands and driven more than 12 million from their homes, continues to rage. Russian forces are now focused on capturing the eastern and southern regions of Ukraine.

Ms. Galadza, who has been ambassador to Ukraine since 2019, would not discuss what predictions Canada was operating on in the first hours of the war. But she said the decision to pull out was based on concerns that it would become impossible to evacuate staff once the war began.

“Whether our assumption was that Kyiv would survive or Kyiv would fall, there was an understanding that something was going to happen that was going to block our ability to get out. … That was the No. 1 thing,” she told The Globe and Mail in an interview in her official residence in the capital. “I regret that we had to leave but I don’t regret leaving.”

The hardest moment, she said, was when she and her team got the Feb. 24 order to move from Lviv to Poland. Staff at the Lviv hotel where the Canadian diplomats had been staying were openly disappointed to see them depart.

“Those people said to me, ‘You’re abandoning us.’ And I said, ‘We’re not going far,’ and I said, ‘We’ll be back.’ But I understand, I can totally see, how that’s how they would feel. I would feel the same way. But it doesn’t mean it was the wrong decision for us.”

It’s clear now that when Canadian diplomats left Kyiv, they weren’t sure if or when they would be able to return. There are several bare spots on the walls of Ms. Galadza’s official residence, with empty hangers marking where government-owned artwork hung before it was packaged up and sent out of the country on orders from Ottawa.

“Hindsight is 20/20,” Ms. Galadza said of the decision to close the embassy. “I’m really happy to be back. And I think because we left and because we’re now back, I think that it means a lot to Ukrainians to see us back. … I have heard from so many of them that it has lifted their spirits and it has provided them with a level of confidence.”

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky was full of praise during Mr. Trudeau’s visit – calling Canada one of four countries of which Ukraine “cannot ask for more” – but in February he said it was “a big mistake” for Western diplomats to leave Kyiv. At the time, Ukrainian officials also wondered at Canada’s reluctance before the invasion to provide Ukraine with lethal military assistance.

Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba, in an interview published Tuesday by Politico, said Western hesitation about providing military support to Ukraine “lost time and allowed Putin to gain what he shouldn’t have.”

Ms. Galadza argued that Canada and other Western countries deserved credit for what they did do to help Ukraine. She pointed to ministerial visits by Foreign Affairs Minister Mélanie Joly and Defence Minister Anita Anand – during which warnings were delivered about Russia’s plans, Ms. Galadza said – as well as Canada’s seven-year-long military mission, Operation Unifier, which trained thousands of Ukrainian troops in tactics such as urban warfare.

“If you look at how the Ukrainian armed forces are fighting, that’s because they partnered with the West. And we answered that call and provided really good training,” she said. “The West has supported Ukraine in this fight very much, very much.”

Though the 200-soldier Operation Unifier was withdrawn from Ukraine at the start of the war, Canada has sent military aid since then, including anti-tank weapons and four M777 Howitzers. Since January, Ottawa has committed $118-million in military support to Ukraine, with another $500-million budgeted for the rest of 2022 and 2023.

Only a handful of Canadian diplomats have returned to Kyiv so far, with consular services still handled out of Poland and other neighbouring countries. Ms. Galadza said she and her political staff will be focused on engagement with the Ukrainian government, specifically assessing military and humanitarian needs, as well as supporting efforts to hold Russia accountable for the apparent war crimes its troops have committed in Ukraine.

She got a first-hand look at some of the evidence Monday, when she joined Mr. Trudeau – as well as Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland and Ms. Joly – on a visit to Irpin, a town on the northern outskirts of Kyiv that was heavily damaged in some of the worst fighting of the war. She said the entire delegation was struck by the scale of the damage, as well as by the evident determination of Ukrainians to defend their country and not allow the Russian army to enter their capital.

Avril Haines, the U.S. director of national intelligence, said Tuesday that while Russia was focusing its war effort on the east for now, Mr. Putin still has ambitions for the rest of the country. Ms. Galadza said that if Russia tried again to capture Kyiv, Canada would evaluate again whether it was safe for diplomats to remain.

“We’re always going to do what we need to do to stay safe,” she said. “I don’t want to have to leave again. We’ve learned a lot and we’ll take that into the future. Right now … we’re focused on bringing more people in.”

Our Morning Update and Evening Update newsletters are written by Globe editors, giving you a concise summary of the day’s most important headlines. Sign up today.