Until the causes of instability and radicalism in places such as Iraq and Syria are addressed, the West can expect to be engaged in foreign conflicts for a long time, NATO's top commander says.

"This is a long-term, not a short-term, fight," Gen. Philip Breedlove, NATO's Supreme Allied Commander, said in an interview on CBC Radio's The House.

"Until we have addressed the root causes of these kinds of issues, we can expect to have to deal with these kind of issues," he said, referring to the current U.S.-led mission against the jihadist group ISIS.

Breedlove said the way to address these root causes is by focusing on bringing jobs, education, health and safety to vulnerable places, as well as figuring out how to make governments "responsive to their people."

Canada has sent six CF-18s, two CP-140 Aurora surveillance aircraft and a Polaris refuelling plane to take part in the mission, and also has 69 special forces operating as advisers to Kurdish forces on the ground in Iraq.

NATO itself is not currently engaged in the coalition conducting air strikes in Syria and Iraq, but the Iraqi government has said it is sending a request to NATO for defence capacity-building support. 

Breedlove said he had not seen the request yet, but described it as a potential "advise and assist" mission.

"Clearly what we have capability to do, that has been discussed, is what we loosely call building partnership capability or helping the Iraqi army: training it, helping it reconstitute and become a more capable fighting force," he said.

Dealing with Russian aggression

NATO is leading a reassurance mission in Eastern Europe in response to Russian aggression in Ukraine.

According to Breedlove, Russian provocations in Eastern Europe and in Ukraine are increasing, despite calls for a renewed ceasefire.

On Dec. 1, NATO Sec. Gen. Jens Stoltenberg said NATO fighters had scrambled to intercept Russian aircraft more than 400 times this year, more than 50 per cent above the number for all of 2013. 

Breedlove said the incursions by Russian aircraft "have come close to the coast of NATO nations and this is not contributing to the stability of the situation."

In eastern Ukraine, Breedlove said, Russia is openly supplying Russian-backed forces. Columns of white trucks enter Ukraine regularly and are even announced by the Russians.

"What I think is the best way to characterize Russian involvement in eastern Ukraine is that they provide the backbone to the Russian-backed forces, who are there fighting the Ukrainian forces," he said.

Fulfilling financial commitments

NATO has been tasked with building a small rapid reaction force that would be able to deploy to trouble spots in Eastern Europe on a few days notice. An interim force will be set up by 2015 and a more permanent force will be in place by 2016.

The details of the force's size and design will be decided by NATO member defence ministers in February.

Breedlove said the force will be capable of going into the field "with great effect," with the ability to handle both short- and long-term missions.

But that task is bound to be expensive, and that's why Breedlove is urging all NATO nations to keep promises made during the conference in Wales in September. Members promised to stop cutting defence budgets and increase defence spending to meet the two-per-cent guideline set for NATO membership.

Spending urged

Member nations are suppose to spend at least two per cent of their GDP on defence. Twenty per cent of that is support to be on new equipment and research and development, to ensure the alliance has what it needs to be effective.

Canada spent one per cent of its GDP on defence last year.

Breedlove said it's crucial that NATO members stop cutting defence budgets and make investments in military equipment now. 

"It's important to note that across the same period of the last few years NATO's spending has gone down 20 per cent, while Russia's spending has gone up 50 per cent. So we do need to address our capabilities going into the future," he said.

As for the year ahead, Breedlove does not expect a more positive security outlook.

"We will continue to see much of the same problems that we are seeing right now," he said.