In a recent CBC News interview, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg welcomed the addition of 1,000 Canadian land troops to reinforce a high-readiness brigade in Eastern Europe and the Baltic region comprised of 4,000 soldiers from four countries.
"We are striving for a more constructive and cooperative relationship with Russia,” he told Nahlah Ayed. “NATO does not seek confrontation. We don’t want a new Cold War. We don’t want a new arms race.”
Tensions have surged in Eastern Europe since the ouster of Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych in February 2014. This sparked resistance in the country’s easternmost regions and, days after the deposed leader fled the capital, Russian forces seized the Crimean Peninsula. The ensuing conflict claimed more than 6,500 lives in one year alone.
In 2015, NATO announced it would be increasing its rapid reaction force to 40,000 personnel.
The crisis in Ukraine has made Eastern Europe one of the most contested military and political spaces in the world. A flashpoint with potentially explosive global consequences, the distinction between provocation and deterrence is muddled. Is Russia inciting war with the West? Or does the steady amassing of NATO forces in Europe’s borderlands with Russia, a betrayal of promises made at the end of the Cold War, present an exceedingly hazardous threat to Russian sovereignty?
Despite promising open dialogue with Russia, the Trudeau government has so far hesitated to explore diplomatic alternatives where expedient military deployments have been promoted by allies, particularly the United States. During his speech to Parliament on June 29, Barack Obama emphasized Canada’s “core” importance to NATO and the common security of its members. A Canadian contribution to the battle group, therefore, was presented as natural and expected.
Reported by the CBC, Globe and Mail, National Post and the Toronto Star, Canada’s commitment to a “persistent presence” in the region signalled renewed solidarity with her allies against “Russian expansionism.” The oft repeated phrase is at this point an axiom of Western media discourse. Russia is overwhelmingly framed in foreign affairs analysis as the aggressor, portrayed as an economically struggling nation with a large military that actively threatens the European security order.
Russian domestic politics are portrayed as autocratic and dictatorial, a neo-Soviet mixture of iron-fisted rule and rampant corruption. Scant attention is paid to the diversity of opinion within Russia, its non-state media and the role of political hardliners who oppose President Vladimir Putin.
Beyond media representation, however, there is good reason to scrutinize the NATO build-up against Russia, especially because increasing tensions increase the likelihood of a hot war between nuclear powers.
The strengthening of NATO’s forward presence in Eastern Europe has deepened strategic distrust between the West and Russia. Frank-Walter Steinmeier, Germany’s foreign minister, likened the renewal of old tensions to “sabre-rattling and warmongering.” He was specifically referring to two major military exercises undertaken in early-June which marked the largest buildup of troops in Europe since the early-1990s and which received no significant coverage in the Canadian press.
In Latvia, Operation Saber Strike saw ground forces including U.S. Marines, heavy machine guns and mortar systems from 13 countries conduct live-fire exercises simulating the capability of rapid assault. In Poland, a 10-day exercise dubbed Operation Anaconda brought together 31,000 military personnel from 24 countries to orchestrate the largest war game in the region since the end of the Cold War. According to the Guardian, “Anaconda-2016 is a prelude to NATO’s summit in Warsaw on 8-9 July, which is expected to agree to position significant numbers of troops and equipment in Poland and the Baltic states.”
NATO’s simulations in Europe have sent a clear message that any attack by Russia against its western neighbours will be considered an attack on the entire alliance. This principle of collective defence is a cornerstone of international law, but it can obfuscate underlying political goals and ideologies.
The Trudeau government ought to be clear with the Canadian public about the military’s long-term goals in Eastern Europe, and the very real risks they present, not only to European stability, but also to Canada-Russia relations. Though the media overwhelmingly focus on “Russian expansionism,” rational minds should take care to weigh the concerns of all states, even ones deemed “belligerent” by a portion of global opinion. The consequences of not doing so, after all, may be dire.
Harrison Samphir is the web editor at Canadian Dimension Magazine and a graduate student completing an MA in international relations at the University of Sussex near Brighton, UK.