Ottawa promised millions of dollars in additional military aid to Ukraine and closed Canada’s airspace to Russian aircraft Sunday as the drumbeat of nuclear war grew louder.
Yet the federal Liberal government continued to face calls for action on several other fronts, while Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered his country’s military to ready their nuclear weapons.
Transport Minister Omar Alghabra kicked off Canada’s latest round of sanctions against Russia by announcing a ban on all Russian aircraft and operators in retaliation for Putin’s decision to attack neighbouring Ukraine.
“All of Canada is united in its outrage of President Putin’s aggression against Ukraine,” Alghabra said in a statement.
“In response, we have closed Canadian airspace to Russian-owned or operated aircraft. The government of Canada condemns Russia’s aggressive actions and we will continue to take action to stand with Ukraine.”
The announcement followed similar moves by most European countries, led by Britain, Poland, Bulgaria and the Czech Republic, as the western world has sought to punish Russia for launching Europe’s largest conflict since the Second World War.
While Russia’s flagship carrier Aeroflot does not fly direct to Canada, it does operate multiple flights per day through Canadian airspace en route to the United States and beyond. Experts have said closing Canadian airspace would negatively impact those routes.
Foreign Affairs Minister Melanie Joly and Defence Minister Anita Anand also pledged to send another $25 million in helmets, body armour, night-vision gear and other non-lethal aid for Ukraine’s embattled military.
“And let me be clear, we will send more,” Joly added during a hastily arranged news conference.
Both measures came as Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s office confirmed that a Ukrainian delegation would meet with Russian officials. Meanwhile, Moscow’s troops drew closer the capital of Kyiv and Putin ordered Russian nuclear forces to be put on high alert.
The Russian president blamed “aggressive statements” by NATO as well as hard-hitting western financial sanctions against his country for his decision to order nuclear weapons be prepared for increased readiness to launch.
Asked about the order, Anand denounced what she called Putin’s “bellicose and irresponsible rhetoric,” while Joly expressed skepticism about the Ukraine-Russia talks and described the Russian president as “irrational.”
“Nobody that decides to bombard a sovereign nation such as Ukraine can be rational in doing so,” Joly said. “So we all agree that there is a level of irrationality to what is happening in the decision making that President Putin is doing.”
The comments came as thousands of Canadians marched in rallies across the country to show their solidarity for Ukraine and condemn Russia’s invasion, which started Thursday and has seen widespread fighting across nearly the whole of Ukraine.
Some of those gathered outside the Russian Embassy in Ottawa, downtown Toronto and elsewhere also called on Canada to do more to support Ukraine and punish Russia.
Those calls include sending weapons and ammunition to Ukraine, expelling Russian Ambassador Oleg Stepanov, recalling Canadian diplomats from Moscow and yanking the Russian state-owned television network Russia Today, or RT, from Canada’s airwaves.
Federal ministers on Sunday left open the possibility of sending arms to Ukraine, after an initial cache of guns worth $7 million was recently delivered, while Heritage Minister Pablo Rodriguez said the government was looking at what to do with RT.
Rodriguez tweeted that Bell and Rogers were removing RT from their station lineups.
Calling RT the “propaganda arm of Putin’s regime,” he said the network has no place in Canada and he’ll have more to say about it “very soon.”
Rogers will also remove RT and replace it with a broadcast of the Ukrainian flag, he added.
Rogers tweeted that it was removing the channel effective on Monday.
Joly defended the decision not to expel Stepanov or recall Canadian diplomats from Moscow, saying it was important for Canada to communicate with Russia and understand what is happening on the ground in terms of events and public sentiment.
Among those calling for Canada to revoke RT’s broadcasting licence, expel Stepanov and recall Canadian diplomats was interim Conservative leader Candice Bergen, who was one of several speakers at the rally outside the Russian Embassy in Ottawa.
Bergen was at one point booed by some members of the crowd, before organizers asked people to listen.
“Conservatives today are standing with our government, with all Canadians in the push against Putin,” Bergen told the hundreds of protesters, many wearing the blue and yellow colours of Ukraine and carrying Ukrainian flags or placards critical of the Russian leader.