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What Drives Canada’s Deployment to Eastern Europe?

Often overlooked due to its relatively small political stature compared with the European Union and the United States, Canada has been playing an active role in the Euro-Atlantic community’s response toward Russia’s activities in Ukraine. In addition to expelling a Russian diplomat and promising 220 million dollars in aid to Ukraine, Canada has also offered military deployments to the region. 

May 12, 2014 - Tony Rinna - Articles and Commentary

canada UA trident

Late last month, the Royal Canadian Air Force sent six CF-18 Hornet fighter jets to Romania as part of a NATO mission of security reassurance. The jets, based at the Canadian Forces Base Bagotville, Québec, are part of an expeditionary force. Unlike some military activities of NATO states in the region, such as the recent naval exercises in the Black Sea which had been planned well before the Russian invasion of Crimea, this deployment comes as a direct response to the Ukraine crisis, according to Canadian Defence Minister Rob Nicholson. General Yvan Blondin has also added that the RCAF jets will be training with Romanian and other NATO forces.

Furthermore, other branches of the Canadian Armed Forces are preparing for deployment to the region. The Royal Canadian Navy is redirecting one of its frigates, the HMCS Regina, from anti-piracy patrols in the Arabian Seato assist NATO forces; 250 Canadian troops are being deployed to Poland as part of an effort to build confidence in Europe’s security; and the Canadian military is sending 20 of its officers to NATO headquarters in Brussels. Later this month, Canada is also due to send a group of demining divers to Latvia for exercises.

Despite Canada not being a major western power, at least in the military sense, since the ouster of Viktor Yanukovych from power, Ukraine has placed a high premium on its relations with that country. Canadian investment in the Ukrainian economy was at around 119 million dollars in 2011, an increase of 7.8 million dollars since 2009. On a military level, Ukraine has participated in the Canadian Armed Forces’ Military Training and Assistance Program (MTAP) since 1993. These strong bilateral ties between Canada and Ukraine are likely a driving force behind Canada’s decision to make its military presence felt during the Ukraine crisis. There are, however, several other considerations in both Canadian domestic politics and Canadian foreign policy behind this military activity.

Canada is showing its commitment to its European allies and is doing so with the relatively small armed forces it has. Canada’s geographic position means that it not only has comparatively few security threats to worry about, but that it could just as easily assume that until the provisions of NATO’s Article 5 are violated, what’s happening in Europe is a European problem and not Canada’s. Of late, however, Canada has been working to make its presence as a responsible and important middle power felt on the global stage. After relative silence from Ottawa on the Ukrainian crisis, Canada is making a statement, one that it is able to in proportion to the size of its armed forces.

The natural and likely response by outside observers of Canada’s actions is that this is merely a token gesture and that Canada sending six fighter jets, a frigate and a small number of troops is a rather tepid contribution toward NATO efforts at increasing confidence in Eastern European security. Some may cynically even see this as Canada making a merely symbolic contribution of little tangible significance, as many accused the post-Communist nations of the “Coalition of the Willing” during Operation Iraqi Freedom. To be sure, sending six jets is not a great show of force, nor will it have any major implications for European security or act as a major deterrent for Russia. But the symbolism behind the action combined with the internal and external political forces driving the decisions cannot be ignored.

Canadians of Ukrainian descent comprise the ninth largest ethnic group in the country and have a fair amount of political clout. The leader of Canada’s opposition Liberal Party, Justin Trudeau (son of former Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau), learned the hard way recently after making remarks which were interpreted as not taking Russia’s military intervention in Ukraine seriously. Canada has parliamentary elections tentatively scheduled for 2015 and while the current Prime Minister Stephen Harper secured a majority in the House of Commons for his Conservative Party of Canada in 2011 (having had a minority government since 2006), Prime Minister Harper is likely factoring in the Ukrainian-Canadian vote, especially since their stronghold is the Canadian Prairie Provinces in which Harper’s constituency seat (“riding”) is located. Even if forces are not deployed directly into Ukraine itself, this is still fundamentally a response to the Ukraine crisis and it is something that many Canadians of Ukrainian descent, many of whom still speak Ukrainian and have an affinity for their former homeland, will not soon forget.

In terms of foreign policy, Canada’s move toward greater military engagement in Eastern Europe is likely based on recent Canadian efforts and policy at making Canada a more viable player in global security and a desire to show that Canada is a willing and active partner in European security against the backdrop of widespread NATO defence cuts. Jocelyn Coulon of the Centre des Études et de Recherches Internationales declares that Canada is simultaneously sending a political and diplomatic message about its commitment to European security. This is especially important for a Canada that is seeking to rebrand its image as being comparatively lacking in the international security arena. According to Naomi Kiloler, Canada has scaled back its previously-strong commitment to the concept of “responsibility to protect” (R2P), much to the chagrin of diplomats around the world. What’s happening in Ukraine right now is certainly not a situation which would call for R2P measures (which is usually invoked in cases such as genocide), but the feeling that Canada has not been as involved in international security as it could or should seems to be felt in many quarters.

In terms of Canada’s own long-term interests, by sending its military into to Europe to stand against a Russian threat, it is also sending a message to Russia that it is willing to stand up for its own interests in the Arctic. In a televised briefing just before Easter weekend, Harper described current Russian activity as “expansionism” and “a long-term threat” to global peace. While at this point the prime minister’s remarks are in direct relation to Russian activity in Eastern Europe, in the back of their minds Canada’s political and military leadership may also have the potential for Russian confrontation in the Arctic. Canada has already had some brushes with Russia vis-à-vis the latter’s Arctic designs. In 2007 Russia planted a flag at the bottom of the Arctic Seabed, prompting then-Canadian foreign minister Peter MacKay to declare “This isn’t the 15th century. You can’t go around the world and just plant flags and say, ‘We’re claiming this territory.’”

The reason why Canada and Russia may face off in the future over the Arctic is due to climate changes. The Arctic is a source of vast amounts of natural resources and both of these countries with their territory in the Arctic will want to assert their interests. In fact, debate has been spurred recently within NATO as to whether NATO’s jurisdiction should extend into the Arctic. If Canada wants to send a message to Russia that they are willing to stand up to a Russian expansionist threat, this is a prime opportunity for the Canadians to do so.

More generally, as NATO has been searching for a raison d’être since the collapse of the Warsaw Pact, Canada’s role in NATO’s involvement in the crisis helps reinforce the Atlantic Alliance’s position as a truly trans-Atlantic entity.

Tony Rinna is a contributing geopolitical analyst at the US-based Center for World Conflict and Peace. His areas of focus include Russia, Eastern Europe and Central Asia.


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