While Canada is facing a lot of international arm-twisting to join a NATO brigade destined for Eastern Europe, sources are telling CBC News the Trudeau government is hesitating over concerns participation could detract from future peacekeeping missions.
The military alliance's top official, Jens Stoltenberg, said it's imperative Western nations respond to "a more dangerous security environment" involving Russia in Eastern Europe.
"I'm glad to see Canada is among several NATO allies which are considering to contribute to this forward presence," Stoltenberg, said in an exclusive interview on CBC News Network's Power & Politics on Thursday.
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He noted that Ottawa has already supplied CF-18 fighter jets for Baltic air policing, a frigate as part of NATO's standing force patrolling the Mediterranean Sea and the Black Sea, as well as a company of soldiers for training exercises in Poland.
"We are very grateful for the contributions from Canada, which we [have] already received, but we would welcome even more," Stoltenberg told CBC.
In the aftermath of Russia's annexation of Crimea two years ago, NATO leaders agreed to expand their multinational rapid reaction force to include up to 40,000 troops, who would be on notice to move within a week of a crisis. They also announced plans to create an ultra-mobile brigade of 4,000 soldiers that could get to trouble spots within a couple of days.
Canada was recently asked to provide troops and lead one of the four battalions that make up the contingent, but the Trudeau government has yet to formally sign off on the proposal.
The soldiers would likely be stationed in the Baltic, but other Eastern European nations have apparently indicated their willingness to host the brigade.
Stoltenberg made a personal pitch to Canadian Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan in a telephone call last week, according to the sources who have knowledge of the file, but could not speak publicly because of the sensitivity of the matter.
The proposal, which has apparently been endorsed by Sajjan, was up for discussion at a cabinet sub-committee but has not been given the government's full blessing.
Concern seems to revolve around the Liberal promise in the last election to put more emphasis on peacekeeping.
Behind closed doors, the suggestion is that tying the army into a NATO engagement involving several hundred troops might prevent the government from taking on a potential United Nations mission in French West Africa.
The sources said senior military commanders have indicated they can do both and that involvement with NATO would only last up to nine months.
The army already has one company of soldiers — just over 150 — training in Eastern Europe and the thinking is it would not be too hard to add an additional company and a headquarters unit.
Despite that, skepticism remains on the political side with some pointing out the last time the alliance asked for a short-term commitment (in Kandahar), it turned into a five-year combat mission, with an additional 2½-year training detachment in Kabul.
The political apprehension is well founded, said Steve Saideman, an international affairs professor at Ottawa's Carleton University.
"Anybody who is saying this is temporary is missing the boat," said Saideman, an expert on NATO.
By creating the brigade, NATO's intention is to establish a "persistent" presence in Eastern Europe in order to hold Russia at bay. It is reassuring jittery allies, many of them new members of the alliance and former East Bloc countries.
Whatever countries agree to in the coming weeks, it should be understood it will be for the "foreseeable future," he said.
Saideman also added that the Liberal government put a lot of emphasis in last fall's election on winning a UN Security Council seat and a commitment to NATO "doesn't move the needle" on that endeavour.
The final troop commitments will be revealed at the upcoming leaders summit in Warsaw, Stoltenberg said.
"This is a very strong and firm response, but it is also a measured response. We don't want a new Cold War. We don't want to provoke a conflict, but we want to prevent the conflict. That's exactly what we are doing."
Under the Harper government, Canada came in for a tongue-lashing on the issue of defence spending. Following the Afghan war, the budget for National Defence was trimmed — leaving the country spending approximately one per cent of its gross domestic product on the military — or about half the NATO benchmark.
"I've told Canada the same as I've told all other allies, who are spending less than two per cent. We have to stop the cuts and we gradually have to increase the defence spending," Stoltenberg told CBC News.
"Canada has actually stopped the cuts and I welcome that very much."
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