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Friday, June 10, 2016

NATO request that 1,000 Canadian troops be deployed in Eastern Europe

BY LEE BERTHIAUME, OTTAWA CITIZEN

OTTAWA — Eastern European NATO allies have been pressing Canada to deploy up to 1,000 soldiers into the region to bolster the alliance’s presence amid continued concerns about Russian aggression.

The Liberal government says it is looking “actively considering options.” However, Eastern European diplomats say Ottawa has so far been giving “contradictory” signals.

“One day we hear we might be pleased with what is coming,” one envoy told the Citizen Thursday, “and the next things do not look good at all.”

Liberals ‘considering’ NATO request that 1,000 Canadian troops be deployed in Eastern Europe
Members of 3rd Battalion, The Royal Canadian Regiment during NATO exercises on May 16, 2015 in Cincu, Romania
The allies’ request has been conveyed through diplomatic channels as well as political meetings between Canadian ministers and their NATO counterparts in recent months. Polish President Andrzej Duda raised the issue personally with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau during a visit to Ottawa in May.

Canada has had 220 soldiers in Poland since June 2014, three months after Russia annexed Crimea and began supporting separatist forces in eastern Ukraine. They are currently involved in a 10-day military exercise with 30,000 other NATO troops, the largest such exercise since the end of the Cold War.

NATO, however, wants to establish a new force in eastern Europe that would provide a bulwark against any further Russian expansion or aggression. The U.S., Britain and Germany have each promised 1,000 troops that will be stationed in different countries, but they need a fourth ally to step up.

If the request is approved by cabinet, one of Canada’s nine infantry battalions would rotate through Europe, serving between six and nine months before being replaced by another battalion.

Another possibility under discussion is for Canada to send an armoured reconnaissance unit to eastern Europe, a source in NATO said.

NATO has also requested that Canada keep a warship continuously on patrol in European waters and to continue from time to time to contribute CF-18 fighter jets to the Baltic Air Policing mission, which was set up after repeated violations of NATO air space by Russian aircraft.

A senior NATO diplomat told Reuters that other European allies are stretched thin because of operations in Africa, Afghanistan or at home, which is why Canada is being singled out.

Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan’s spokeswoman, Jordan Owens, was non-committal when asked if Canada would contribute the requested troops. “As a committed NATO ally, Canada is‎ actively considering options to effectively contribute to NATO’s strengthened posture,” she said Thursday.

Discussions between Canada and the alliance are ongoing, diplomats told the Citizen on condition of anonymity, and a decision should be made before NATO leaders gather in Warsaw next month. Before that, however, the issue is expected to come up when Sajjan meets with other NATO defence ministers in Brussels next week.

Deploying so many soldiers overseas could be taxing for the Canadian Armed Forces given recent operational and budgetary pressures. Canada is ramping up its mission in Iraq to more than 800 personnel, including helicopters and other equipment. This is in addition to existing commitments in Europe.

At the same time, Canadian defence spending as a percentage of the economy has reached levels not seen in decades. This is despite NATO members having agreed in Wales two years ago to reverse the decline, and aim to spend two per cent of GDP on defence. Canada spends one per cent.

Eastern European NATO members, however, see the alliance force that Canada is being asked to support as essential for ensuring their security in the face of Russian aggression. Most are former Soviet states, and they worry that what is happening in Ukraine could also play out within their borders.

Canada previously had troops in Western Europe on a permanent basis during the Cold War, though most were returned home when the Soviet Union collapsed. The new force would be comprised of troops who would rotate through the region on a regular basis.

Despite not having a clear indication where the Liberal government was leaning, Eastern European diplomats said they were hopeful Canada would contribute the requested troops.

“I very much hope that by the time of NATO summit, it’s more clear and decisions will be taken at the summit that match our expectations,” said one. “I think Canada won’t let us down.”

With files from Postmedia News