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On Monday, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said Russia’s defensive posturing, including threats of nuclear warfare, is part of a ‘pattern we’ve seen over time.’Dave Chan/The Globe and Mail

NATO's top official says Canada and the rest of the military alliance should be prepared to keep in place efforts to deter Russian aggression in Europe for years.

Jens Stoltenberg, Secretary-General of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, made a brief stop in Canada on Monday to meet Stephen Harper and discuss alliance business.

It's been more than one year since Russian President Vladimir Putin annexed Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula – a shock to European security that breathed new life into NATO and its Cold War collective defence pact.

Russia's belligerent turn continues unabated, with a shaky ceasefire between Russian-backed rebels and Kiev in eastern Ukraine and military exercises close to Estonia. On Saturday, Moscow's Ambassador to Denmark, Mikhail Vanin, threatened to train nuclear missiles on Danish warships if Copenhagen joins a U.S.-led missile defence shield; Denmark's frigates would carry special radar systems as part of the effort.

Mr. Stoltenberg rejected Russia's concerns about the program. "It's a defensive system and Russians know it's not targeted at Russia," he said in an interview Monday.

He said the Russian ambassador's comments are part of a "pattern we've seen over time" where Moscow has beefed up military spending, dispatched bombers on more training runs in international airspace, demonstrated the willingness to use force and featured talk of its nuclear arsenal prominently in messaging.

NATO has reacted in the past year by overhauling its defence plans and moving troops, airplanes and warships closer to its eastern flank. Canada has joined air patrols along the Baltic states that border Russia, deployed troops to joint NATO exercises in the region and assigned a vessel to allied patrols in the Black Sea and Mediterranean.

The alliance has created a 5,000-troop rapid reaction force that can be deployed in Europe within 48 hours and is more than doubling the size of its existing NATO reaction force to 30,000 soldiers.

It's also creating six "command and control" centres in the Baltic states and the member countries along its eastern flank, including Poland, Bulgaria and Romania, that could co-ordinate military action should the need arise.

"The response is to make sure our deterrence is credible in the future," Mr. Stoltenberg said.

He refused to say whether he thought NATO member countries should give lethal weapons to Ukraine as Kiev has requested in the face of Russia's ongoing and poorly disguised support for pro-Moscow rebels in eastern Ukraine.

"This is up to every ally to decide, if and what kind of weapons they would like to supply to Ukraine," the NATO Secretary-General said.

Mr. Stoltenberg, a former prime minister of Norway, was far more ambiguous on this point than NATO's top military commander, General Philip Breedlove, who warned Sunday that not sending weapons to Ukraine carries risks. "Is inaction an appropriate action?" the general asked.

Despite all of Russia's bellicose actions, Mr. Stoltenberg said he doesn't see a concrete risk that a NATO member country will be next. "We don't see any imminent threat against any NATO ally; but we see a new security environment – and that's caused by the behaviour of Russia … where Russia is willing to use military force to change borders."

The NATO chief said the alliance must be ready to keep increased military readiness in place "as long as necessary" to reassure member countries that they are protected against attack from Russia.

"We have to be prepared … that this will take years," Mr. Stoltenberg said. "It's always hard to predict and there are many uncertainties – but that is the reason why we have to be prepared for unpredictable outcomes and events. That is the reason we are increasing our defence."

He said the challenge for NATO is juggling two roles as a result of the ongoing Russian incursion in Ukraine and the threat to alliance security from Moscow. "We have to do crisis management and collective defence at the same time," he said. "That's new in NATO history."