NATO chief warns Russia away from attacking supply lines supporting Ukraine

NATO's secretary general has warned that a Russian attack on the supply lines of allied nations supporting Ukraine with arms and munitions would be a dangerous escalation of the war raging in eastern Europe.

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NATO's secretary general has warned that a Russian attack on the supply lines of allied nations supporting Ukraine with arms and munitions would be a dangerous escalation of the war raging in eastern Europe.

Jens Stoltenberg made the remarks Tuesday in an interview with CBC News as he, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and the leaders of Spain and Latvia visited NATO's base and training range at Adazi, outside Latvia's capital Riga.

"The allies are helping Ukraine uphold their right for self defence, which is enshrined in the UN charter," Stoltenberg said after a meeting with Trudeau, Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez and Latvian Prime Minister Arturs Krišjānis Kariņš at the Adazi base.

"Russia is the aggressor and Ukraine is defending itself. If there is any attack against any NATO country, NATO territory, that will trigger Article 5."

Article 5 is the self-defence clause in NATO's founding treaty which states that an attack on one member is an attack on all 30 member nations.

"I'm absolutely convinced President Putin knows this and we are removing any room for miscalculation, misunderstanding about our commitment to defend every inch of NATO territory," Stoltenberg said.

The United States and its allies, including Canada, have been engaged in a race against time to send weapons and ammunition to Ukraine, which has been under relentless assault from Russian forces for over two weeks.

Some in the U.S. intelligence community fear that Moscow might try to cut off the flow of arms going into Ukraine, either with airstrikes or with long-range artillery. The weapons coming from the West are unloaded in border countries, such as Poland, and then shipped by land.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, left, and NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg walk during their visit to Adazi Military base in Kadaga, Latvia, Tuesday, March. 8, 2022.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, left, and NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg walk during their visit to Adazi Military base in Kadaga, Latvia, Tuesday, March. 8, 2022. (Roman Koksarov/The Associated Press)

Stoltenberg said there's a clear distinction between supply lines within Ukraine and those operating outside its borders.

"There is a war going on in Ukraine and, of course, supply lines inside Ukraine can be attacked," he said.

"An attack on NATO territory, on NATO forces, NATO capabilities, that would be an attack on NATO."

Stoltenberg said NATO's message to Russia is that "they have to end the war, that we will continue to support Ukraine and that we continue to impose unprecedented sanctions."

Poland offers Ukraine fighter jets

The stakes appeared to increase dramatically late Tuesday when Poland announced it is prepared to transfer all of its MiG-29 jets to the U.S. so that they can be handed over to the Ukrainians.

Poland's foreign ministry urged other NATO members with the same type of Russian-made warplanes to do the same.

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"We need these fighters [jets] and sheltered sky as soon as possible," said Ukrainian Charge d'Affaires Andrii Bukvych. "Otherwise, the cost will be calculated by thousands of civilians."

The U.S. has suggested it would backstop Poland by providing replacement fighters. But in a tweet issued late Tuesday, the Pentagon said the proposal is not "tenable" because it would involve fighter jets in the hands of Americans being flown into "airspace that is contested with Russia ...

"[That] raises serious concerns for the entire NATO alliance."

The West has sent Ukraine thousands of anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles since the war erupted.

Ukrainian civilians receive weapons training, in the outskirts of Lviv, western Ukraine, Monday, March 7, 2022. (Bernat Armangue/AP)

A Canadian shipment of small arms — including machines guns, carbines and 15 million rounds of ammunition — arrived in Ukraine just before Russia invaded. The Liberal government has committed to sending anti-tank and grenade launchers, but it's not known whether the shipment has arrived.

Some of the lethal aid is being taken out of the Canadian Armed Forces' own stocks. That has highlighted some of the shortcomings Canada's own military faces; the Canadian army does not have its own dedicated anti-aircraft system, for example.

Trudeau was asked Tuesday if his government is willing to push through an urgent procurement order to equip the Canadian military in response to the war and Ottawa's plans to increase the contingent of Canadian troops in Latvia.

"All those weapons are much more useful right now and in the coming weeks in the hands of Ukrainian soldiers fighting for their lives than they would be in Canadian hands," said Trudeau.

"But of course, we need to make sure we replace those weapons rapidly and that we continue to invest in the equipment that leads our Armed Forces to be able to continue to contribute."

A Russian MiG-29 plane in flight outside Moscow on Aug. 11, 2012. (Misha Japaridze/Associated Press)

Trudeau, Stoltenberg and the other leaders visited a training range Tuesday where troops from a 10-nation contingent were conducting a live-fire training exercise. They walked among the armoured personnel carriers, tanks and mobile guns and chatted with troops.

Col. Sandris Gaugers is the commander of the Latvian mechanized brigade which works with the NATO battle group. He said integrating the equipment and procedures of the different armies has been a challenge but the mission is succeeding.

'Definitely, we can go and fight'

"Honestly, if I had to say, can we go and fight? Definitely, we can go and fight," he told Trudeau, Stoltenberg and Sanchez as they overlooked the training area from a hilltop position.

Canada has committed to adding a 120-soldier artillery battery to its existing commitment of 540 troops and headquarters staff in Latvia.

Gen. Wayne Eyre, Canada's top military commander, told CBC News in an exclusive interview Tuesday that his focus at the moment is on organizing those reinforcements.

"We've got the same challenge we had in World War One, World War Two," the chief of the defence staff said. "We've got to get across that big lake known as the Atlantic and we've only got so much strategic lift capacity. So, we're going to have an effect on the ground here very shortly."

Canada activates NATO reinforcements

The federal government has ordered the activation of 3,400 reinforcements who might join the NATO Response Force (NFR) if called upon by the Supreme Allied Commander.

Eyre said the military is still working out whether and how they would be needed.

"The NATO response force is a shopping list of capabilities, which can be requested depending on the nature of what NATO Supreme Allied Commander is asking for," he said. "So, the chance that all 3,400 would be called forward is relatively low."

Trudeau also announced Tuesday the early renewal of Canada's military contribution to NATO's deterrence mission, known as Operation Reassurance.

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"As Russia continues its unwarranted and unjustifiable attacks on Ukraine, Canada is standing united with our European allies in supporting Ukraine and the Ukrainian people, as well as democracy and human rights everywhere," Trudeau said Tuesday.

The mandate for the deployment of hundreds of Canadian soldiers in Latvia had been slated to expire in 2023. The federal cabinet has extended it indefinitely in response to Russia's invasion of Ukraine. 

Before the invasion, the Liberal government signaled in Defence Minister Anita Anand's mandate letter that it intended to renew the NATO mission's mandate. Stoltenberg welcomed that move when he and the three prime ministers met the media following their meetings.


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.