NATO will have to consider permanently stationing troops in Eastern Europe in light of Russia's aggression in Ukraine, the Western alliance's top military commander says.
General Philip Breedlove, NATO's Supreme Allied Commander, Europe, also revealed that the deployment of troops and military hardware by the alliance to European training exercises could last until at least Dec. 31.
That's the timeline for NATO's current "reassurance" mission to patrol member states that are neighbours of Russia and ensure "we are prepared to meet any threat to alliance populations and territory," Gen. Breedlove told reporters in Ottawa on Tuesday after meeting with Canadian defence officials.
The NATO commander's Canadian visit took place as a pro-Russia militia holding an Eastern Ukrainian city came under further pressure on Tuesday from advancing government troops while militants acted with impunity elsewhere in the turbulent region. The foreign ministers of Ukraine and Russia also met, but their open disagreements did nothing to suggest a diplomatic solution was near.
It is not clear how Canada's military commitment to the mission will change over the next eight months, but 300 troops, a frigate and six Canadian Forces jets are taking part in Ukraine-related NATO exercises – an deployment assigned without any official Parliamentary debate.
Gen. Breedlove said he will seek direction from NATO member countries at a September summit in Wales on whether the reassurance mission in Europe should be extended or revised.
He said NATO members will also have to consider "tougher questions" about whether the alliance is "correctly positioned" in Europe and whether it is sufficiently ready and able to address a resurgent Russia, which has already seized Crimea.
Asked whether the situation today means NATO will have to examine a permanent deployment of troops to Eastern Europe, Gen. Breedlove said: "I think this is something that we have to consider."
He did not suggest where in Eastern Europe troops might be stationed on a long-term basis. The commander noted that the existing mission has led to deployments of air, land and maritime forces in NATO's north, central and southern European regions.
Gen. Breedlove said that, for some time, NATO nations had treated Russia "as more of a partner" and adjusted military budgets and deployment on the understanding that their former Cold War enemy was no longer a threat. He said Moscow's recent conduct has dashed that thinking.
"The actions that you have seen demonstrated in Crimea, where a nation assembled a force on a border, brought it to great readiness and positioning and then went across an internationally recognized border and annexed a sovereign portion of another nation – that changes the dynamic," he said.
"The Russian Federation's actions and military escalation presents serious implications for the security and stability of Eastern Europe."
Asked whether NATO plans to build up troops and hardware further in response to the conflict in Ukraine, Gen. Breedlove did not directly answer, but said he wants to reach a "robust presence" in north, central and southern NATO countries in Europe.
The commander emphasized the deployment would stick to protection for NATO allies and avoid provoking Russia.
Separately, Canada's Chief of the Defence Staff, Tom Lawson, revealed that the six CF-18 fighters Ottawa deployed to Romania as part of NATO operations are not armed during training exercises there. He said they can be armed on short notice.
Defence Minister Rob Nicholson's office insisted "no final decisions have been made" on the duration of Canada's commitment to the NATO reassurance mission.
"We will continue to stand with our allies," Julie Di Mambro, director of communications for Mr. Nicholson, said in an e-mail.
It appears Canada's deployment to Europe could include short-term assignments. Gen. Lawson said troops such as those dispatched to Poland for NATO training have been told to expect a limited stay.
"What we've told those soldiers is to plan on 30 to 60 days for these training activities and then they are likely to be coming home. If that were to turn into something else as a result of further discussions between our government and NATO, then we would be ready to react," Gen. Lawson said.
The Canadian frigate HMCS Regina has been assigned to NATO for the reassurance mission and is expected to pass through the Suez Canal by mid-May to join the alliance. Gen. Breedlove was not clear on where it would be deployed, but options include the Baltic Sea, the Mediterranean or the Black Sea.
Diplomacy was to be taken up again on Wednesday during a meeting in Moscow between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Swiss President Didier Burkhalter, whose country currently chairs the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. Russia and the West have expressed a desire for the OSCE to play a greater role in defusing the tensions in Ukraine.
Ukrainian military operations that began on Monday to expunge pro-Russia forces from the city of Slovyansk were the interim government's most ambitious effort so far to quell weeks of unrest in Ukraine's mainly Russian-speaking east.
Four government soldiers and 30 militants were killed in the gunbattles, Ukraine's interior minister said on Tuesday. The pro-Russia militia said 10 people were killed, including civilians. There was no immediate way to reconcile the figures.
In the southwest, Kiev authorities also attempted to reassert control over the region around Odesa, a major Black Sea port, by appointing a new governor on Tuesday.
With reports from Associated Press