By Matthew Fisher
May 28, 2015

If NATO decides to establish an army brigade next door to Russia in one of the three tiny Baltic states, Canada will seriously consider contributing troops to such a force, Defence Minister Jason Kenney says.

“We will certainly consider any requests that come our way,” he said in a telephone interview from Ottawa this week, adding he expected the subject to come up at the next NATO defence ministers’ meeting in Brussels on June 24.

“We see an ongoing need and a role for Canada to play. We are the only NATO member that does not have a permanent troop presence in Europe. We do think we have a role to play through periodic deployments of this nature.”

Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, which left the Soviet Union when it collapsed 25 years ago and joined NATO in 2004, have been asking the alliance again to establish such a combat base.

They argue this is urgently needed to act as a check on President Vladimir Putin’s ambitions since he unsettled Europe last year, seizing Crimea from Ukraine and sending Russian troops and weaponry to aid separatists in eastern Ukraine.

If the alliance approves the idea — and that remains a big “if” right now because of opposition from Germany and some other NATO countries —  members would most likely be asked to send a battalion-sized unit of 600 to 1,000 soldiers for six months at a time.

One possible way around objections might be for NATO to argue that because the troops would be rotating through this base, rather than be permanently stationed there, it was not really a base at all.

Much has been made of the Harper government’s fierce commitment to Israel, which friends and foes of the policy have said distinguishes Canada from most of its Western allies.

Canada has also followed a different path in its response to Putin and the peril posed by ISIL radicals waging religious wars in Iraq and Syria.

While Ottawa has so far only committed about 1,000 of its 60,000 troops to eastern Europe and the Middle East, it has arguably done more militarily in those regions than any of its Western brethren except the United States.

The U.S. and Canada have also been alone in adopting a tougher posture on fighting ISIL than their Western partners. Only the U.S. Marine Corps and the Canadian Army have sent advisers to the front lines in Iraq to identify and “laser” enemy targets. Ottawa and Washington are also the only Western countries to have committed fighter jets to the air war against ISIL in Syria.

Douglas Hurd, a former British foreign secretary, was fond of boasting Britain “punched above its weight” internationally. That has not been the case over the crises in eastern Europe and the Middle East of recent years.

France, which NATO has often counted on for big contributions, has also done less militarily lately in these areas than Canada, although both France and Britain have much larger militaries.

Canada has had several hundred infantry in eastern Europe since last summer, sending companies of about 200 troops on relatively short tours. That mission is to continue until at least the end of March.

The Canadians deployed on Operation Reassurance are combat soldiers, not trainers like the Canadian special forces working in Iraq.

They took part recently in what Kenney termed a “very real” exercise with the U.S., Britain and Romania in Romania. The intention was to ensure “our troops have a cutting-edge operational readiness to integrate with our allies should the need arise.”

Canada has also recently had warships in the Black Sea and the northeastern Atlantic. Last spring, it contributed six CF-18 fighter jets to a NATO policing mission that has been intercepting Russian warplanes near alliance air space. If asked, the Royal Canadian Air Force would likely send the jets over again, although there were no plans to do so at present, Kenney said.

Canada’s other commitment to the defence of eastern Europe has been Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s declaration in April that his government would send up to 200 military advisers to western Ukraine. Originally expected to arrive in June, they will not be there until August for at least a two-year mission.

Notwithstanding the Kremlin’s heavy-handed meddling in the region and Putin’s threats to several eastern European countries, the Russian embassy in Ottawa denounced the news of the Canadian trainers’ deployment as “deplorable” and “counterproductive.”

Canadians can expect more such Russian vituperation if NATO begins to seriously discuss whether it should establish an outpost in the Baltics.