OTTAWA – Canada is pressing ahead with plans to deploy hundreds of troops as part of a NATO effort to deter Russian aggression in eastern Europe amid concerns about the military alliance’s future under Donald Trump.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on Monday affirmed Canada’s commitment to lead one of four NATO forces in eastern Europe, which will see 450 Canadian troops deploy to Latvia starting next year.
Trudeau said he is “very proud” that Canada is taking a leadership role “as we support the Baltic states and defend the eastern European border against Russia.”
His comments came as NATO members scrambled to understand how the Trump administration plans to deal with and support the 67-year-old military alliance.
During the presidential election campaign, Trump repeatedly called NATO obsolete and warned the U.S. would not automatically come to the defence of a member that was attacked.
The real-estate mogul and reality-television star also praised Russian President Vladimir Putin, despite a clampdown on human rights and democracy in Russia and its actions in Ukraine and Syria.
Now that Trump has been elected president, many NATO members have been wringing their hands over what might happen if Russia decided to flex its muscles in eastern Europe in the same way it did in Ukraine.
U.S. President Barack Obama sought to allay those concerns in Washington, D.C., on Monday, as he prepared to visit NATO members Germany and Greece.
“In my conversation with the president-elect, he expressed a great interest in maintaining our core strategic relationships,” Obama said.
“There is no weakening of resolve when it comes to America’s commitment to maintaining a strong and robust NATO relationship.”
Many NATO members are nonetheless waiting for Trump himself to set the record straight on his views over the military alliance.
Trump has said he would first consider whether an ally that is under attack has been pulling its weight in terms of defence spending before deciding whether the U.S. would help.
All NATO members agreed in 2014 to spend two per cent of their gross domestic product (GDP) on defence, but only five meet that target.
Canada is in the bottom third of allies at less than one per cent, the lowest level in decades.
Latvia was at 1.04 per cent last year, but has committed to doubling that figure by 2018.
Asked about the risk to troops in Latvia if U.S. support for NATO softens, Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan said the military is considering all the risks and will make sure the soldiers and their partners are prepared.
The Canadians are to form the core of a 1,000-strong battle group that will include troops from Albania, Italy, Poland and Slovenia.
“This will be a very robust battlegroup that Canada will be leading,” Sajjan said.
Latvia’s ambassador to Canada downplayed the impact of Trump’s election on NATO, saying his country, a former Soviet republic, has lived through “different times and settings” in its history.
“We believe that U.S. institutions and democracy are strong, international commitments clear and there are no obstacles that we could not overcome if necessary,” Karlis Eihenbaums said in an email.
Steve Saideman, a NATO expert at Carleton University, said he would like to see Canada come together with Germany and Britain to publicly affirm their support for the alliance and eastern European members.
Such an action, he said, would help counter some of the uncertainty that Trump has injected into the alliance and give Russia pause about taking any action.
But defence analyst David Perry of the Canadian Global Affairs Institute said the reality is that Canada and most of the other NATO members have not been pulling their weight, and that it may be time to start doing so.
“We’ve all agreed to these commitments of two per cent,” he said. “We won’t move to two per cent tomorrow, but increasing to 1.2 or 1.3 per cent would be a significant increase.”
With reporting from Alexander Panetta in Washington, D.C.