Op-ed

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Why Canada should join NATO’s Eastern Europe mission

by Stephen Saideman

The Globe and Mail
June 21, 2016

Summits, such as the upcoming Warsaw Summit for members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, are designed to force decisions to get made. The recent meeting of defence ministers to prepare for the meeting of leaders made it clear that NATO will be sending 4,000 troops to Eastern Europe on a “persistent” mission to deter Russia and reassure the allies.

There are four spots for framework nations that will take the lead in each of four countries – Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia and Poland. These are four countries threatened by Russia in the aftermath of Crimea. The proposal is to put 1,000 troops in each, not to stop a Russian attack, but to create a tripwire so that Russia would be deterred from attacking any of these places.

So far, three countries have committed to be framework nations: the United States, the United Kingdom and Germany. The United States and NATO wanted Denmark and Norway to combine to lead the fourth effort, but they declined. So, now the request and a fair amount of pressure has been applied to Canada to be the fourth framework nation. This would not require 1,000 troops, but a smaller number that would be enough to provide leadership with contributions from other members to get to the desired level.

Should Canada make this commitment? Yes. While the government of Justin Trudeau is focused on winning votes to get a seat on the United Nations Security Council, this NATO effort would advance other objectives.

First, formally, Canada would be seen as playing a similar, if not entirely equal, role to the big heavy hitters in the alliance. It would give Canada a much more visible role in Europe, which would give Canada more heft within NATO discussions. This would be, in the parlance of these things, big bang for the buck.

Second, Canada has been under much pressure over the years to spend more on its defence. Participating in this effort would quell those calls for a while. It will be hard to criticize Canada at meetings in Brussels if it answers the call. It will put into stark contrast Canada’s willingness to do what is asked, compared to a variety of countries that near or exceed 2 per cent of gross domestic product on defence, such as Greece, that do not contribute much when anything is on the line.

Third, the members of the European Union have not yet ratified the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA) with Canada. Helping out a number of European countries, both those who would be defended in the East and those who would be happy to have Canada take this role (Norway and Denmark at the very least), might be leveraged into more support for the deal.

Fourth, compared to the UN hotspots currently imagined as possible destinations for the Canadian Armed Forces, this would be a relatively low-risk, low-expense effort. The whole idea of this effort is to prevent conflict, and prevention always costs less than actually conducting warfare. For the UN missions in West Africa, for instance, the troops would face far higher risk. So, in terms of risk/reward calculations, the persistent-presence mission is a better bet.

To be clear, despite what some have said, this would be a long-term commitment, as Russia is not going away anytime soon, nor will President Vladimir Putin’s eventual replacement likely be someone who does not pose some kind of threat to the Baltics. Canada based troops in Western Europe for decades, so any suggestion that this commitment would last less than a year should be dismissed.

Will this provoke Russia? Maybe, but leaving the Baltics open to Russian aggression is a temptation. Better to provide clarity – that NATO is committed every single day and not just when NATO troops happen to be exercising. A persistent presence is necessary to provide the credible commitment to the allies to reassure them and a strong signal to Russia that aggression would lead to a process that might just get out of hand.

If Canada wants to make a difference in the world, contributing to peace and security in Eastern Europe probably counts. The risks are lower, and the payoffs are greater than most likely UN missions.

Image: Getty

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