Op-ed

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NATO, deterrence and what it means for Canada

by Stefanie von Hlatky

The Hill Times
May 29, 2017

KINGSTON, ONT.—The Canadian government has decided to postpone the unveiling of its defence policy review until after the NATO meeting in Brussels, which was held last week.

This was President Donald Trump’s first visit to NATO headquarters and allies were looking for signals that he is committed to transatlantic security. In the past, Trump had indicated that NATO was obsolete but later changed his position, emphasizing its role in counterterrorism, in particular.

NATO’s other big priority is deterrence, a word most Canadians had relinquished to Cold War history. While the concept is familiar, the hybrid conflict environment that has emerged on NATO’s eastern flank presents new challenges. What does this mean for Canada?

Deterrence made a comeback in 2014, following Russia’s annexation of Crimea, and was featured prominently in the NATO communiqués during the Wales and Warsaw summits. Canada has been especially supportive of NATO deterrence by offering a sizable commitment to support enhanced forward presence (EFP), which is the deployment of four battle groups (about 4,000 troops) to Poland and the Baltics. Canada will be leading one of the battle groups, as a framework nation, alongside the U.S., Germany, and the U.K. The Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) has begun to send equipment over to Latvia in preparation for its June deployment. Hundreds of CAF members will be stationed in Adazi as part of Operation Reassurance, Canada’s contribution to EFP. But what does that mean in practical terms? 

Deterrence is supported by a combination of nuclear, conventional, and missile defence capabilities. EFP is strengthening NATO’s conventional posture by stationing a multinational contingent close to Russia. This is meant to discourage Moscow from considering an attack on any of the Baltic states or Poland, countries that have all expressed a growing sense of insecurity since 2014. This is worth highlighting because deterrence is also about reassuring allies about the credibility of the collective defence arrangements enshrined in NATO. EFP thus serves both deterrence and reassurance functions. So far, this is not all that different from the Cold War.

What is new is that the multinational battalions would not be enough to defend against a full-scale Russian attack. A previous RAND study noted that at least seven brigades (up to 28,000 troops) and Air Force personnel would be needed for this. However, the ability to defend is not necessary to deter. Even if modest, the mere presence of NATO troops changes Moscow’s calculus when contemplating any subversive action to “protect” Russian-speaking populations in the Baltics. EFP prevents a limited fait accompli in the Baltics and complicates the equation for President Vladimir Putin. At the present time, it seems unlikely that Russian forces would attempt to run NATO troops over and trigger an all-out war. So beyond acting as a tripwire force, what are we asking the NATO battle groups to do?

First, these multinational forces will be enhancing defence co-operation with the countries in which they are stationed. In Latvia, for example, the armed forces are composed of about 5,000 military personnel and will certainly benefit from having new training and capacity-building opportunities. Second, this deployment will reinforce interoperability among the deployed NATO troops. Canada is leading a battle group that includes Albania, Italy, Poland, Slovenia, and Spain. Co-ordinating the activities of five nations under the NATO flag may not be as straightforward as imagined, as previous coalition operations have shown. Finally, NATO troops will have to gain force acceptance, meaning that the local population must view their long-term presence favourably. In Latvia, Canada will have to build this support through constant engagement at the political and military levels. Even if Latvia is a NATO ally, the population’s support for the presence of foreign troops on their soil might fluctuate over time, especially among ethnic Russians or Russian-speaking communities. Moscow will try to undermine this support at every turn.

Stéfanie von Hlatky is the director of the Centre for International and Defence Policy at Queen’s University and a fellow with the Canadian Global Affairs Institute.

Image credit: NATO

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