If NATO calls, will Canada stand by Ukraine?

The prevailing view in Washington and Ottawa now is that it is Europe's job to stand up to Russia. But that won't necessarily stop the call for Canada to be part of a NATO buildup in Eastern Europe, Brian Stewart writes.

Washington and Ottawa seem content to let Europe face off with Russia, but NATO needs may prevail

A masked armed man, representing Ukrainian special forces, stands guard outside the regional administration building in the eastern city of Kharkiv last week following armed protests by pro-Russia demonstrators. The central government in Kyiv has now said it will mobilize the army to put down a rebellion by pro-Russia militants, a decision Moscow has taken to the UN Security Council. (Olga Ivashchenko / Reuters)

As tension continues to escalate almost hourly over Ukraine, there is a growing sense of déjà vu in Canadian military circles as  speculation turns to the kind of help NATO may ask of Canada

Will we soon have to reinforce nervous NATO nations by sending over a small cluster of F-18s? Perhaps a frigate or a land unit, to show that Canada understands the gravity of a bad situation?

So far, Canada has remained noticeably quiet whenever a potential military response to Vladimir Putin's pressure tactics has been discussed, despite Prime Minister Stephen Harper's strong stand in support of Ukraine's independence.

That may change in coming days, however, when the details of NATO's "reassurance package" for central and Eastern Europe are unveiled.

Reassurance package is the name for a mix of plans NATO chiefs have been working on since Putin snatched the Crimea last month. They are trying to find ways to reassure both Ukraine, not a NATO member, and the alliance's own eastern members facing Russia that they are not on their own.

But NATO's problem is how to provide this kind of reassurance without triggering a further military or economic escalation from Russia.

In other words, how to do enough, but not too much.

Upping the ante

So far the NATO buildup has been limited. The U.S. has sent 18 fighter planes to patrol over Poland and the weak Baltic states, along with surveillance aircraft and ground crews.

The reassurance package is expected to up the ante by adding more planes, some new naval units in the Baltic and Black seas, and even a rotation of brigades of U.S. troops (about 4,500 at a time) into European military exercises.

A NATO airborne warning and control systems aircraft takes off from a base near the German-Dutch border. NATO has now begun reconnaissance flights with AWACS over Poland and Romania to monitor the situation in neighbouring Ukraine. (Ina Fassbender / Reuters)

The emphasis here is on rotating these elements in and out rather than setting up permanent bases.

It is an approach that increases the chance that Canada will be asked to shoulder at least some of the burden alongside old allies like the British, French, Germans and Dutch, for the sake of NATO credibility.

However, one can't help noticing a different kind of "crisis atmosphere" this time.

While some people see this Cold War-like standoff as a chance for NATO to renew itself, following the deep internal divisions during the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, there's clearly not much enthusiasm being shown in either Washington or Ottawa for burden sharing in Europe.

No sign of military hustle on airfields and docks.

Yes, there are some strident views in Washington calling for rapid U.S. reinforcement to parts of the continent.

But there are now also significant counter voices in the U.S. saying it is high time a pampered and dependant Europe looked after its own security needs.

The conservative counterattack

U.S. conservatives are now among the most het up over Europe's crippling addiction, as they see it, for U.S. support.

In the influential conservative business magazine Forbes this week a former Ronald Reagan aide, Doug Bandow, pilloried NATO's European members for cutting their own military spending in the anticipation the U.S. will bail them out.

"The Europeans continue to enjoy a cheap if not quite free ride on the U.S. and have no reason to change so long as Washington showers them with reassurances while guaranteeing their security," he wrote.

The Wall Street Journal chimed in with the reminder that "European powers in recent years have shelved entire divisions and weapons systems… France and the U.K. each now field a mere 200 main battle tanks."

These counter voices are a far cry from the Cold War policy consensus, when both liberals and conservatives for the most part viewed America as the "essential nation" leading NATO against communism, with the most hardline positions coming from the right.

Let Europe do it

Today, with communism gone, there's very little foreign policy consensus in Washington, and not much identification with old alliances or even "Old Europe" as it's sneeringly called.

What we're probably seeing is a revival of some strains of traditional American isolationism, gaining some new life since the disappointments of both the Iraq and Afghanistan adventures, coupled with the rise of the far right Tea Party movement that also seems to be looking more inward.

A man looks at Russian army trucks on freight carriages near the Crimean city of Simferopol in April 2014. (Reuters)

Cynicism about Europe, though, was far from absent when President Barack Obama in 2012 "pivoted" U.S. military strategy from Europe to East Asia.

The key to Europe's defence was firmly handed to Europeans, a move that suggested the U.S. really did not view the small states of Eastern Europe as vital to its national interest.

"With a collective GDP more than eight times that of Russia, the Europeans could do far more if they desired," Brandow writes in his Forbes essay,

This period of tension, however, may prove a critical test of that desire.

In the meantime, Canadian and U.S. military units will likely be asked to join with Europe in the old familiar reassurance roles. It also seems likely neither would refuse although they may be less giving than hoped.

The two North American members of NATO will be demanding proof that Europeans are taking a lead in reassuring the continent's jittery nerves.

Certainly Washington has given no sign it intends to pivot yet again back to permanent role in Europe. Those days are done, or so it hopes.

This satellite image made by DigitalGlobe on March 27, 2014, and provided by NATO's Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe (SHAPE) on Tuesday shows what is purported to be a Russian artillery battalion at a military base near Novocherkassk, in southern Russia. The image is one of several provided to the AP that show dozens of Russian tanks and other armoured vehicles, combat jets and helicopter gunships stationed inside Russian territory near to the eastern border with Ukraine. (Associated Press)


Brian Stewart

Canada and abroad

Brian Stewart is one of this country's most experienced journalists and foreign correspondents. He sits on the advisory board of Human Rights Watch Canada. He was also a Distinguished Senior Fellow at the Munk School for Global Affairs at the University of Toronto. In almost four decades of reporting, he has covered many of the world's conflicts and reported from 10 war zones, from El Salvador to Beirut and Afghanistan.


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.

Become a CBC Member

Join the conversation  Create account

Already have an account?