by Thomas Walkom
Ottawa is under pressure from Washington to take command of one of four new NATO battle groups being set up in Poland and the Baltic states to face off against Russia.
Each is to consist of between 800 and 1,000 troops.
That’s not enough to stop Russia should it choose to invade its neighbours. But the theory is that the presence of even a small number of North American and Western European troops in these countries would, by acting as a kind of tripwire, deter Moscow.
Germany, the United States and Britain have already announced publicly that they will command three of the four battle groups. The British-led force will include about 500 British troops, plus some from Denmark and France. The U.S. says most of the battle group it commands will be American.
Technically, Canada has not yet made up its mind. A government spokesperson told Canadian Press that Ottawa is “actively considering options.” But the news coming out of the NATO defence ministers’ meeting Tuesday in Brussels suggests Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government will find it hard to say no.
Eastern European members of NATO – particularly Poland and the Baltic states of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia – are spooked by Russia’s annexation of Ukrainian Crimea.
They want to be sure that NATO will come to their aid if they are attacked. Putting North American and Western European soldiers on the front line is meant to accomplish that. “We don’t want a new Cold War,” NATO secretary-general Jens Stoltenberg told reporters in Brussels.
But that’s exactly what is happening.
Meanwhile, back in Canada, the Trudeau government is simultaneously trying to forge a friendlier relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin’s regime.
Foreign Affairs Minister StÈphane Dion is the key figure here. In March, he noted that former prime minister Stephen Harper’s strategy of trying to isolate Russia by severing ties hasn’t worked.
Last month, Dion rejected the idea of passing a Canadian version of America’s so-called Magnitsky Act, designed to freeze the assets and limit travel of Russian human rights violators.
He said then that such a law, named after a Russian critic of the Putin regime who died in prison after being beaten, was unnecessary and would only antagonize the current Russian government.
Dion has run into a buzzsaw of criticism for this, even from within his own party. Former justice minister Irwin Cotler has called for a Magnitsky Act as has former interim Liberal leader Bob Rae.
At least two sitting Liberal MPs also support a law that would crack down more severely on Russian human-rights violators.
Added to this are the domestic politics within Canada. Many Canadians whose families came from Eastern Europe are deeply suspicious of Russia. As former prime minister Stephen Harper found, the idea of standing tough against Putin is not unpopular in this country.
Up to now, the Liberal government has managed to juggle its conflicting approaches to Russia without irritating too many. On the one hand, it continues to oppose Russia’s annexation of Crimea. On the other, it doesn’t let that annexation interfere with its attempts to deal practically with the Putin regime in other areas – ranging from Arctic co-operation to the war in Syria.
At the same time, it has continued to participate in NATO exercises designed to deter Russia – including the deployment of 200 Canadian military advisers to Ukraine.
On Wednesday, Trudeau and the prime minister of Romania discussed a plan to base a multinational NATO brigade in that former Soviet satellite.
But will commanding a battle group along the Russian border be viewed by Ottawa as a step too far?
Clearly, there is some resistance within government to the idea. That’s why Canada, unlike Germany, Britain and the U.S., didn’t sign on publicly this week.
Will that resistance hold? Can the Liberal government resist the pressure from Washington and some of its own voters to take a harder line against Moscow in this new Cold War? I’m not sure it can.
Thomas Walkom’s column appears Monday, Wednesday and Friday.
Copyright 2016 – Torstar Syndication Services