Canadian soldiers in Latvia. Source: Canadian Armed Forces.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, attending the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) summit in Warsaw on July 8-9, has announced that Canada will send 450 soldiers to Latvia, as well as armoured vehicles, up to six CF-18s and naval frigates to the Baltic region of Eastern Europe for an unspecified period of time.
The Canadian Press reports that "Canada will take command of a 1,000-strong multinational force in Latvia", "the first Canadian troops could begin arriving in Latvia early next year", and that "Germany, the United States and Britain are leading similar forces in Lithuania, Poland and Estonia." In terms of the length of this mission, the Canadian Chief of Defence Staff General Jonathan Vance says, "[NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg] has been clear this is an open-ended commitment. And so Canada has committed to that. We'll take it as it comes. But it is intended to be enduring."
While this deployment contravenes the NATO-Russia Founding Act signed in 1997, in which NATO agreed not to station troops along the Russian border, NATO officials argue that Russia effectively terminated that agreement when it annexed Crimea, which is located on the north coast of the Black Sea, in March 2014.
The Globe and Mail's global affairs reporter Patrick Martin explains, "[Soldiers] are being dispatched at the request of NATO members Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland, with the express purpose of deterring what is perceived as Russian aggression. For its part, Russia says it is only reacting to what it perceives as Western aggression – the continental spread of alliances such as NATO and the European Union that has come to threaten core Russian interests."
Martin adds, "To NATO, the crisis started with Russia’s March, 2014, seizure of the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine and the subsequent Russian support for separatists in Ukraine’s eastern provinces. To Russia, however, the trouble began before that, with NATO and the European Union encouraging newly independent Ukraine to abandon its non-aligned status, to break many of its historic ties to Russia, and to become a more European partner. For Russia, which maintains an important naval base in the Crimean port of Sevastopol, home to Russia’s Black Sea Fleet, such a shift posed a strategic threat."
Dimitri Simes, president of the Center for the National Interest in Washington, says, "While Westerners may believe that NATO’s eastward expansion has been peaceful and voluntary, Russians see it as inseparable from NATO’s European and global military exploits." He warns, "[NATO and Russia are] on a collision course.”
University of Ottawa professor Paul Robinson cautions, “It’s very unlikely [a military deployment] will make things better in terms of our relationships with Russia, it would make things worse. ...I think one needs to be realistic about the so-called threat rather than emotional and realize that the Russian threat to the Baltic states doesn’t really exist. ...If we can calm things down and build trust on their side as well as on ours, then we’re much more likely to avoid problems, than by stocking tensions. In Russia the public climate is very hostile to NATO at this point in time, and particularly to the United States, and this is just one more thing adding to an already long list of grievances, which will harden attitudes in Moscow rather than make them more flexible or more reasonable."
Doug Bandow, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute, argues, "[A NATO buildup will only] create a perceived threat to Russia where none currently exists."
And Scott Taylor, the editor and publisher of Esprit de Corps magazine, recently wrote in The Hill Times, "For NATO to move 4,000 troops right up to Russia’s Baltic borders at this moment has to be seen as a deliberate provocation of Russia, just as things seem to be stabilizing. The Colonel Blimp Brigade may be bulging with pride that Canada was asked to contribute to this force, but maybe a better question would be: why are the other European NATO members staying away in droves?"
Last month, German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier expressed concern that NATO maneuvers in Poland and the Baltic states risked raising tensions with Russia. Steinmeier said, "What we shouldn’t do now is to add fuel to the fire with loud saber-rattling and war cries. Whoever thinks it’s helping security to have symbolic tank parades at the Eastern European border is wrong. ...It would be fatal to narrowly focus on military action. We need to re-engage with our partners on disarmament and arms control for security in Europe."
And UK Labour party leader Jeremy Corbyn has previously commented, "I am not an admirer or supporter of Putin's foreign policy, or of Russian or anybody's else's expansion. But there has got to be some serious discussions about de-escalating the military crisis in central Europe. NATO expansion and Russian expansion—one leads to the other, and one reflects the other."
But Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has called Russia's actions "illegitimate" and says, "Leading efforts in Latvia was exactly something we saw as an opportunity for Canada to contribute security and stability, defence and deterrence at a time where that's very much necessary."
The Toronto Star reports that both Conservative defence critic James Bezan and NDP Defence critic Randall Garrison welcomed the deployment of Canadian troops in Eastern Europe.
The Canadian Press adds, "[Foreign Minister Stephane] Dion said Trudeau [also took] the opportunity at the NATO summit to press upon European Union leaders the importance of ratifying a free trade deal between the EU and Canada."
Trudeau will also be signing a new Canada-Ukraine Free Trade Agreement - that includes the controversial investor-state dispute settlement (ISDS) provision - when he visits Kyiv on July 11-12. Given Ukraine has the third largest deposit of shale gas in Europe, the Government of Canada cites "increased interest [in] Ukraine's significant unconventional oil and gas deposits" as a reason behind this free trade agreement.