Ukraine is, of course, the most pressing issue facing NATO as a whole today. In some ways, it is a revival of NATO’s original purpose—the containment of the Soviet Union—and may be seen as confirming its raison d’être. NATO appears to have been searching for a new focus since the end of the Cold War. Though it has been actively involved in peacekeeping or peacemaking, it has always been structured and intended to be a collective defense organization, but it did not appear likely in recent decades that it would be called on for that purpose in the near future. Now, because of Russia’s aggression against Ukraine, the situation has changed, particularly from the perspective of NATO’s Eastern European members.
Although Ukraine is not a NATO member, it has a special relationship with NATO through the 1997 Charter on a Distinctive Partnership, which established the NATO-Ukraine Commission (NUC), and the Declaration to Complement the Charter, signed in 2009.
For Canada, the Ukraine crisis has a different significance from most other NATO states. Canada, unlike much of the EU, is not reliant on Russian oil or gas. Although, Russia was Canada’s 18th highest export destination in 2012, and there are significant interests in Russia from some Canadian mining and manufacturing companies, that has not prevented Canada from being fairly assertive in its actions. In addition, Canada has a very large Ukrainian diaspora which has also been very vocal in demanding action from the government.
Canada first responded to the crisis with sanctions which have been extended several times. In addition to suspending all bilateral activities planned between the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) and the Russian military, Canada has deployed CAF units and personnel to join other NATO units in Central and Eastern Europe, to show both its opposition to Russian actions and commitment to the Alliance’s collective defense.
Canada deployed six CF-18 fighter jets with support staff to Romania, sent 20 CAF operational planners to SHAPE to reinforce planning functions and monitor events in the region, and retasked HMCS Regina to join Standing NATO Maritime Group One in the Eastern Mediterranean. Canadian forces also participated in Operation Open Spirit in Latvia in May, 2014, airborne operations training in Poland in May 2014, and Operation Saber Strike 2014, in Latvia, Estonia, Lithuania and Poland in June 2014.
In addition, Canada sent a CC-130J Hercules on August 7, with a range of targeted protection, medical and logistical equipments, such as helmets, ballistic eyewear, protective vests, first aid kit, tents, and equipment, requested by the government of Ukraine to help it strengthen border security by enhancing its capabilities to detect the illicit movement of goods and people.
Along with its NATO allies, Canada expects to monitor the situation closely and take further action if necessary.
It is not known at this time whether the Russia-Ukraine conflict will have any impact on Canada-Russia relations in the Arctic. Canada expects to settle issues of jurisdiction in international courts. Canada has just begun a comprehensive shipbuilding program to renew its Naval and Coast guard assets, but that is a long-term process which will not do much in the short term to boost Canada’s ability to protect its extensive Arctic coast-line should Russia turn its attention there in a similar unilateral, aggressive way. As it is, Canada has problems covering its extensive northern territory for search and rescue purposes.
Canada supports NATO efforts to strengthen cyber security, and sees a continuing role for NATO in this area and other ongoing and emerging security areas, such as WMD, nuclear proliferation, and international terrorism and piracy.
In connection with terrorism, there is a growing concern about Canadian nationals or dual citizens travelling to participate in conflict or be trained in terror tactics in countries such as Somalia, Syria, Pakistan, and others, and returning to Canada with the possible intention of putting their training into practice in North America. Since this situation is not unique to Canada, this is an issue that NATO should address to see if more intelligence gathering and sharing of information and best practices can help NATO members prevent or counteract such activities.
Canada expects longer term priorities such as capabilities development and more efficient readiness to be on the agenda at the UK summit. In fact, Canada pledged at the June Defense Ministerial to make rapidly available the contingency forces that it maintains for Alliance operations. Furthermore, NATO interoperability is always a key factor in the acquisition of new CAF assets, including the new National Shipbuilding Strategy.
Given its extended borders and large landmass relative to its population, Canada needs to spend proportionately more on territorial security programs, including the Canadian Coast Guard and remote search and rescue, than most countries, and is therefore unlikely to increase defense spending as a percentage of its GDP.
In recent years, NATO’s members may have been lulled into a false sense of the security, but its eastern members no longer feel as confident. There is a growing belief that NATO needs to make its presence and capabilities more obvious, and give signals that it is prepared to use them, in order to prevent having to actually use them.
Julie Lindhout is President of the Atlantic Council of Canada and Christian Paas-Lang is Program Editor for Canada’s NATO.