OTTAWA – Prime Minister Justin Trudeau flies to Poland on Thursday for his first NATO leaders’ summit armed with a promise to help the alliance in its standoff with Russia.
The question is whether it will be enough to deflect questions and criticism in other areas, not least the fact Canada is near the back of the pack in terms of NATO allies’ defence spending.
The summit in Warsaw begins Friday. Trudeau will be greeted by NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, who earlier this week thanked Canada for agreeing to join Germany, the United Kingdom and the United States in leading a 4,000-strong NATO force in eastern Europe.
Trudeau is expected to announce that Canadian troops will be deployed to Latvia, where they will make up the majority of a 1,000-strong battalion that will also include forces from other NATO members. Germany, the U.K. and the U.S. will lead similar units in Lithuania, Estonia and Poland.
Officials say Canada’s contribution to the NATO force, intended to reassure Eastern European allies and act as a deterrence against Russian aggression in the region, will be the largest Canadian deployment to Europe since the Cold War.
Trudeau has already met in recent weeks with Poland’s president and Romania’s prime minister. But the summit will be his first real opportunity to hear firsthand from all Eastern European NATO allies about Russia’s actions in the region.
NATO leaders will also dedicate a special session on Saturday to Ukraine, a country Trudeau will visit after the summit and a brief stop at Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp.
Trudeau’s message throughout the NATO summit as well as his trip to Ukraine will be that Canada remains committed to advancing international peace and security, including through military means.
While the message is expected to be welcomed, it could also be questioned.
Officials said in a technical briefing Wednesday that NATO asked Canada to take a leadership role in Eastern Europe, not the other way around. The officials, who were speaking on background, suggested this was recognition of Canada’s importance to the alliance.
But the Liberal government’s agreement came after significant pressure from NATO leaders, including Stoltenberg and U.S. President Barack Obama, who called on Canada during his speech to Parliament last week to do more for the alliance.
At the same time, the Liberals have made no secret of their desire to have Canada do more with the United Nations on peacekeeping. It is also in the midst of developing a new Canadian defence policy. NATO leaders will want to know where the alliance fits in the government’s plans.
Trudeau is also expected to face pointed questions about Canada’s defence spending, which was less than one per cent of gross domestic product last year. The NATO target is two per cent, and even with a slight increase this year, Canada will sit 23rd out of 28 allies.
Eastern Europe won’t be the only topic. After years of resistance, NATO will contribute surveillance planes and a training mission to help fight the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. Given Canada’s current involvement, Trudeau isn’t expected to add anything new.
But he might on Afghanistan.
Two years after the last Canadian troops pulled out of the NATO-led mission there, the country remains awash in violence. As a result, Obama announced Wednesday that the U.S. would slow its troop withdrawal from the country.
While Canada won’t send soldiers, more than $100 million in annual funding for Afghanistan’s beleaguered security forces is set to expire next year. Officials indicated Wednesday that an announcement could come in Poland, though would not provide details.