NATO reinforces its eastern flank as it braces against threat of Russian chemical attacks

NATO will deploy four more battle groups in eastern Europe as part of a wide-ranging reinforcement of the region following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the secretary general of the western military alliance said Wednesday.

Prime Minister Trudeau and other NATO leaders are set to gather for a meeting in Brussels Thursday

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau arrives in Brussels, Belgium on Wednesday, March 23, 2022. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

NATO will deploy four more battle groups in Eastern Europe as it grows increasingly concerned about the threat of Russia using chemical weapons in Ukraine, the secretary general of the western military alliance said Wednesday.

The additional troops will be sent to Slovakia, Hungary, Bulgaria and Romania, Jens Stoltenberg told a media availability in Brussels ahead of Thursday's meeting of NATO nation leaders.

Combined with existing forces in the Baltic countries and Poland, NATO will soon have eight multinational battlegroups in the region — a front facing Russia stretching from the Baltic states to the Black Sea.

"President Putin's invasion is brutal," said Stoltenberg. "And the human suffering is horrifying and painful to witness. We are determined to do all we can to support Ukraine."

Against the threat of Russia using chemical, biological or even tactical nuclear weapons, NATO nations will begin shipping protective equipment to Ukraine's military, the secretary general added.

"First of all, any use of chemical weapons would totally change the nature of the conflict," Stoltenberg said. "It would be a blatant violation of international law and would have far-reaching consequences. And I think that's the most important message to convey."

Speaking on background Wednesday following Stoltenberg's remarks, senior NATO commanders said they estimate between 7,000 and 15,000 Russian troops have been killed fighting in Ukraine in the month since the invasion began.

His remarks came as Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, delivering an address to the European Parliament, warned that free nations can't afford to take democracy for granted.

He said western countries have watched the storm building for years and now face "a defining moment."

WATCH: NATO to deploy 4 more battle groups in Eastern Europe: 

NATO shores up eastern flank, Trudeau speaks to European Parliament

2 years ago
Duration 2:01
NATO will deploy four battlegroups to eastern Europe in a bid to prevent Russian aggression, warning the Kremlin against using chemical, biological or nuclear weapons in Ukraine.

Speaking before half-empty benches and packed public galleries, Trudeau received a sustained ovation when he said the European Union and NATO are more united than ever in the face of Russian President Vladimir Putin's war. He said the world "cannot let Ukraine down."

"Putin's attack on Ukraine is an attack on the values that form the pillars of all democracies," Trudeau said.

"We have a responsibility to make the case to people about why these values matter so much — not just to Ukrainians but to us all. We must recommit ourselves to the work of strengthening our democracies, and demonstrate the principled leadership people are looking for."

Trudeau is in Europe for a meeting of NATO and G7 leaders who are deciding how the military alliance and the world's leading economic democracies can do more to help Ukraine defend itself.

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen met with Trudeau Wednesday. Praising the spirit of unity in the transatlantic community since the start of "Putin's atrocious and cruel war," she said Canada and the EU will work together to deliver humanitarian assistance.

Gaps in the sanctions net

There will be a new G7 working group to share information about sanctions and enforcement of penalties, she said.

Her remarks came during a spirited debate among European parliamentarians about the effectiveness of sanctions to date. Many pointed to loopholes that still allow billions of Euros to flow into Russia.

WATCH | European Union Ambassador to Canada Melita Gabrič on the possibility of new sanctions against Russia:

Fresh EU sanctions package against Russia could come as soon as tomorrow, says EU Ambassador

2 years ago
Duration 8:05
The EU could announce a fifth package of sanctions against Russia as soon as tomorrow and Ottawa is expected to act in concert, says the European Union's Ambassador to Canada, Melita Gabrič.

Von der Leyen also announced the EU and Canada will step up cooperation on cybersecurity to help the governments of Ukraine and Moldova with defence and Internet access.

She also called for "strategic energy cooperation" with Canada, arguing that "our dependency, the European Union's on Russian fossil fuels ... puts Europe's energy security in danger."

"We have to get rid of our dependency on Russian fossil fuels, and as a response, the European Union and Canada will take our strategic energy cooperation to the next level," she said.

Trudeau also met Wednesday with Sanna Marin, prime minister of Finland.

Finnish Prime Minister Sanna Marin: 'It's crucial that Russia stops all military action on Ukrainian soil.' (Lehtikuva/AFP via Getty Images)

"The situation in Ukraine, it's very serious, and it's so important the EU and Canada and the United States and Great Britain is working together with the sanctions on Russia, trying to find a peaceful way out of the situation, and trying to create also space for Ukraine to negotiate for peace," said Marin. "It's crucial that Russia stops all military action on Ukrainian soil."

Trudeau said Finland's "proximity" to Russia gives it useful insights on the war.

"Finland has a deep proximity and reflections on Russia that I look forward to hearing ... but also opportunities for us to talk about how we can continue to stand up strongly for democracies around the world and the kinds of things that matter to both of us, and to our citizens," he said.


Murray Brewster

Senior reporter, defence and security

Murray Brewster is senior defence writer for CBC News, based in Ottawa. He has covered the Canadian military and foreign policy from Parliament Hill for over a decade. Among other assignments, he spent a total of 15 months on the ground covering the Afghan war for The Canadian Press. Prior to that, he covered defence issues and politics for CP in Nova Scotia for 11 years and was bureau chief for Standard Broadcast News in Ottawa.