Skip to main content

Pro-Russian armed men ride on top of an armoured personnel carrier near the town of Slavyansk, eastern Ukraine, May 5, 2014.BAZ RATNER/Reuters

Prime Minister Stephen Harper accused Russian President Vladimir Putin of mounting a "slow-motion" invasion of Ukraine as NATO's supreme commander warned that the international community's military posture needs to strike the balance between resolve and not appearing provocative.

Harper's latest broadside against the Russian leader came Monday in Ottawa at the start of talks with U.S. Gen. Philip Breedlove, the western alliance's operational commander in Europe.

"We are obviously concerned by the continuing escalation of violence in Ukraine, which to me very much appears to be clearly what I would call a slow-motion invasion on the part of the Putin regime," Harper said as Breedlove nodded his agreement in the prime minister's Langevin Block office.

Breedlove is embarking on two days of talks with Canadian political and military leaders just as heavy clashes erupt between Ukrainian and pro-Russian forces in Ukraine's eastern region.

Later Monday, in a speech to diplomats and defence experts at the Canadian War Museum, he warned that the redrawing of borders by force in Europe is no longer a thing of the past and the international community needs "to be better prepared for the next crisis, when it comes."

Breedlove said NATO needs to ask itself some tough questions and among them is whether its forces are "positioned correctly." New members, such as Poland, have called for the basing of western troops on their soil as a deterrent.

At the same time, the narrative in Russia is that its adversaries are surrounding it, a fear that could be exacerbated as NATO flexes it muscles in a series measures and manoeuvres intended to reassure nervous Eastern European allies.

"What we have to do is build forces that reassure our allies, but are not necessarily provocative to the Russians," said Breedlove, a former F-16 fighter pilot.

Earlier in the day, Breedlove met briefly with Harper, Defence Minister Rob Nicholson and Canada's military commander, General Tom Lawson.

The meetings were held against a backdrop of escalating violence in Ukraine, where the country's elite troops have been dispatched to quell unrest in the key southern port city of Odessa.

Harper called the latest developments "very deeply concerning" and acknowledged NATO has asked for Canada's support.

Breedlove says there is no doubt that Russian special forces are operating inside eastern Ukraine, in much the same manner they did in Crimea. But he wasn't prepared Monday to accuse them of shooting down a Ukrainian helicopter near the eastern town of Slaviansk.

He said it's known there are some ground-to-air missiles missing from a looted Ukrainian armoury, but the possible involvement of Russian forces is unclear.

The use of shadow troops with no clear uniform markings is something the international community — particularly the media — should have been prepared to call-out more forcefully at the beginning the annexation of Crimea, said Breedlove.

He also said when the conflict first erupted in February, questions about NATO's relevance in the post-Cold War era evaporated overnight. Although, his fear is that if the world doesn't see Russian tanks rolling over the border, it will eventually lose interest and it will be business as usual.

Harper said the Department of National Defence has contributed air, naval and army assets to help reassure eastern European allies that they have the support of NATO and Canada.

A Canadian frigate has been dispatched to operate with NATO's standing task force in the eastern Mediterranean Sea, along with six CF-18 fighters to operate out of a Romanian air base and troops from the 3rd Battalion Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry, who will participate in a land exercise in Poland.

Breedlove thanked Canada for the contribution and told the audience during a question and answer session that several nations are looking at contributing additional troops and perhaps even other equipment. He refused to name them or be more specific.

He sidestepped questions about the defence spending of NATO nations.

The alliance sets a minimum goal for members of spending two per cent of GDP on their militaries — a target few them hit. Canada's current defence budget rings in at roughly one per cent of GDP — a decline of roughly 0.2 per cent since the Afghan war ended.

Breedlove said only five of the 28 NATO nations achieve that goal, but since the crisis developed in Eastern Europe three other countries have pledged to increase their spending on the military.