Baltic countries 'justified' in concerns over Putin, says top NATO general

Donald Trump's impending move to the White House is doing little to dispel concerns from the Baltic states about a revitalized Russia, something NATO's top general is watching closely.

Gen. Petr Pavel says Russia has increased its military capabilities 'significantly'

Chair of the NATO Military Committee Czech Gen. Petr Pavel says that Russia 'is using military power to pursue its political objectives.... We are doing our best to deter them.' (Czarek Sokolowski/Associated Press)

Donald Trump's impending move to the White House is doing little to dispel concerns from the Baltic states about a revitalized Russia, something NATO's top general is watching closely.

"We have to deal with Russia as a country that is using military power to pursue its political objectives.… We are doing our best to deter them from any such intention," Gen. Petr Pavel told Chris Hall in an interview airing Saturday on CBC Radio's The House.

This week, Lithuania's Foreign Minister Linas Linkevicius told the BBC the Russian leader may test NATO in the weeks before Trump becomes president.

"Russia is not a superpower, it's a super problem," Linkevicius told the British news outlet. "I'm very afraid and concerned about this period, not just because of the regions which are close to here, but let's hope that Aleppo [in Syria] is not smashed from the ground by then."

Pavel said he doesn't think Russia would provoke NATO "at this point," but didn't rule out an eventual test of NATO's resolve.

NATO watching Trump, Putin closely

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Featured VideoNATO General Petr Pavel on what a President Trump will mean for NATO.

"Given the unpredictability of Russian behaviour, it's difficult to talk about anything 100 per cent," he said.

"From a large point of view, I don't believe Russia would gain anything from testing NATO at this point, because if President [Vladimir] Putin says he wants to have more dialogue with the United States and even NATO, such an action wouldn't support that effort."

Baltic nations fear neighbouring Russia

Roland Paris, the research chair in international security and governance at the University of Ottawa and a former foreign policy adviser to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, says a Russian move is unlikely to happen soon, but would likely occur in the Baltics.

"NATO represents both a threat to [Putin's] ambitions and it symbolizes the coherence of the West, which he's seeking to undermine. So to the extent that Putin can weaken NATO's credibility, resolve and integrity, I think that he'll do what he can," he said.

A test could involve using local proxies and pro-Russian groups to stir unrest and provoke instability, said Paris.

"It's hypothetical, but we've seen a game plan that Putin has used in other places, including in Georgia, Ukraine and Moldova," he said.

Russia is working to develop new weapons to ensure a strategic balance, President Vladimir Putin said Friday. (Alexei Druzhinin/Associated Press)

Trump has spoken favourably about Putin, which has intensified fears in the Baltic countries about how an emboldened Russia will act.

"Their concern is justified. They are living close to Russia. They face on the daily basis the effects of a continuous information and propaganda campaign," said Pavel, the first NATO military chairman from a former Eastern Bloc state, what is now the Czech Republic.

Russia has increased its military capabilities significantly.- Gen. Petr Pavel

On Friday, Putin met with top military leaders at his residence in the Black Sea resort of Sochi, where he said Russia is working to develop new weapons to ensure a global strategic balance. He vowed to fend off threats posed by NATO's U.S.-led missile defence system.

Pavel said strong deterrence and defence coupled with dialogue with Russia — the approach agreed upon earlier this year at the NATO meeting in Poland —  is the way forward.

Canada's deterrence role 

Canada will play a role in that deterrence next year when it moves about 450 troops into Latvia.

Russia has been building up its presence in Kaliningrad, its province sandwiched between Poland and Lithuania, with nuclear-capable missiles.

"Russia has increased its military capabilities significantly over, I'll say, the last decade," Pavel said, adding NATO troops stationed in neighbouring countries will show Russia "such a policy wouldn't be successful."

A woman walks past a mural depicting Russian President Vladimir Putin and U.S. president-elect Donald Trump, on the walls of a bar in the old town in Vilnius, Lithuania. (Mindaugas Kulbis/Associated Press)

The general, who is in Canada for the annual Halifax International Security Forum, wouldn't delve into what Trump's win could mean for NATO. During one of the election debates, Trump suggested America wouldn't defend allies who didn't contribute sufficiently to the alliance.

U.S. President Barack Obama expressed hope Thursday that Trump would stand up to Russia when it deviates from U.S. "values and international norms."

Pavel said there's a difference between what is said during an election campaign and what is actually accomplished once in power.

"We believe there is a great deal of continuity and mutual interests on both sides of the Atlantic," he said.

Paris agrees the United States benefits from international stability, but an unconventional president means nothing is guaranteed. 

"Nobody knows what Trump is going to do in foreign policy as president," he said.

"If he were to turn into policy everything that he said on the campaign, then we would be in a very uncomfortable position right now."

With files from The Associated Press