Canada is expected to embrace a proposal to create new NATO bases in Eastern Europe that would be designed to speed up any military response to Russian threats in the area.
The plan, to be discussed at next week’s NATO summit in Wales, is being pushed by the Polish government and Baltic countries that are seeking an increased military presence near the Russian border.
“We are pretty hopeful and assured that the Canadian position will be close to the Polish one,” said Marcin Bosacki, Poland’s ambassador to Canada. “The signals from the Canadian government are quite positive.”
Rick Roth, a spokesman for Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird, said in a statement: “Canada will continue to support its allies in eastern Europe and take the steps necessary to assist them to maintain their security and national territorial integrity.”
The Canadian government has taken an aggressive position in the faceoff between NATO and the Russian government after the annexation of Crimea, and is vowing to stand behind its allies.
The new bases would indicate that NATO is ready to return to its origins as a military and political alliance aimed at deterring Russian expansion, after Moscow’s aggressive efforts to back Russian separatists in Ukraine.
“You will see a more visible NATO presence in the east,” said Anders Fogh Rasmussen, NATO’s Secretary-General.
The changes are not expected to lead to a full-scale return to the Cold War when NATO oversaw the forward basing of hundreds of thousands of combat-capable troops. Instead, prepositioned munitions and supplies would be established at a handful of bases, likely in Poland and perhaps the three small Baltic states.
Mr. Bosacki said the goal is to “react to challenges and dangers ... in a matter of hours, not weeks.”
NATO promised Moscow more than a decade ago that its expansion eastward wouldn’t include major permanent basing of troops close to Russia.
NATO leaders are expected to approve a plan to create or upgrade forward bases, but without any permanent basing of troops.
This will both signal the alliance’s resolve and create what amounts to a tripwire to deter a repeat of Moscow’s meddling in the Ukraine.
Key to the new military posture will be a demonstrated ability to rush reinforcements to NATO member countries closest to Russia, including Poland and the three Baltic states.
“In order to be able to provide such rapid reinforcements, you also need some reception facilities in host nations,” Mr. Rasmussen, a former Danish prime minister, told The Guardian in an interview published Tuesday.
“It will involve the prepositioning of supplies, of equipment, preparation of infrastructure, bases, (and) headquarters.”
But the vexed issue of whether NATO will attempt to base large numbers of troops – even on a rotational basis – at forward locations will be left to leaders who gather next week in Cardiff.
Mr. Rasmussen hinted that a bigger, dedicated rapid reaction force, capable of being moved to eastern bases from the big western European allies and the United States might emerge as the compromise that would garner allied support without undermining the 1997 undertaking given Moscow.
“It’s our intention to develop what I would call a spearhead within that response force at very, very, high readiness,” he said.
NATO remains riven over how toughly to deal with Russian President Vladimir Putin’s aggressiveness in supporting separatist movements among ethnic Russian minorities in Ukraine and other eastern European states.
U.S.-led efforts to impose tough sanctions have won only limited support from some major western European allies, not least because several are heavily dependent on Russian natural gas exports.
There’s also discomfort over finding the right amount of military posturing – sufficient to show resolve without escalation. NATO nations, including Canada, have stepped up combat patrols in the airspace of eastern allies, sending warplanes to demonstrate allied presence, but divisions remain.
Over all, Canada’s contribution, under the banner of Operation Reassurance, has involved the deployment of 590 troops and other personnel in Europe.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel has explicitly ruled out forward stationing of NATO combat forces.
Speaking in Latvia, one of the small vulnerable NATO Baltic allies with a Russian minority and a border with Russia, she said NATO’s coming summit won’t approve “permanent, sustained stationing of fighting troops but we can strengthen our co-operation very much in other ways.”