Foreign Deployments – Is there a strategy?

Source of publication: 2018 FrontLine Defence (Vol 15, No 6)

At first glance, Canada’s current overseas military deployments may appear rather haphazard with troops situated in relatively small numbers across thousands of miles. Some 500 Canadian military personnel, for example, are currently stationed in Latvia as part of a Canadian-led NATO-enhanced Forward Presence Battle Group while 135 others, equipped with five CF-18 Hornets, are guarding the skies above Romania until December 2018.

Not too far away, 200 more Canadian soldiers are busy training their Ukrainian counterparts, a mission that commenced in September 2015 and is set to continue until March 2019. A similar effort took place in Poland for several years but has since wrapped up. Meanwhile, the Royal Canadian Navy has continued its patrols in the Baltic and Black Seas. The end result is that at any one moment, approximately 1,000 Canadian military personnel are deployed in Eastern and South-eastern Europe as part of a collective deterrence effort aimed squarely at Russia.

Elsewhere, Canada takes command of a new NATO training mission in Iraq in early 2019, on the heels of a successful mission training Iraqi-Kurdish Peshmerga troops for several years. And a Canadian general is now the deputy commander of the UN force in Korea, while another 162 personnel are deployed on various UN missions, including the recent deployment to Mali.

A question naturally arising, given all these disparate missions, is what exactly is the government hoping to achieve? Canadian troops are deployed in penny-packets everywhere. It’s a far cry from the big missions that took place in the former Yugoslavia, and more recently in Afghanistan. However, when the missions are collectively, rather than individually examined, a strategy becomes clear.

It starts with the former Canadian government, who, from the Baltic to the Black Sea, firmly threw its support behind NATO’s effort to contain Russia – this began in April 2014, shortly after Crimea was annexed. The current government has continued along the same path, albeit with little choice after President Trump’s surprising arrival in the White House and with others arguing that the United States is now engaged in a second Cold War typified by the Russian attack on the “core of the American democratic system” during the 2016 presidential elections.

It seems like a long time ago that the new President was calling on NATO members to spend 2% of their GDP on defence, which Canada had (and has) no intention of doing. But stepping-up its engagement, by taking command of the Baghdad mission, for example, seems to have given the government some breathing room, at least for now. Indeed, one might easily conclude that Canada’s numerous troop deployments have also given the government the justification needed to continue side-stepping requests by NATO to join the alliance’s Afghan training mission. Canada and France are the only two NATO members not a part of this effort.

On the peacekeeping front, there’s not a lot to say. Certainly, the recent Mali deployment is an important contribution to the collective UN effort in that country, but there appears to be little desire in Ottawa to do much more even if the winning of a non-permanent seat on the Security Council is placed in jeopardy. Indeed, when it comes to Canada’s overall strategy, there’s no escaping the irony that containing a “more assertive Russia,” or lending a helping hand in Iraq, is arguably much safer than donning a blue helmet. And NATO-Russia mutual containment has also become a win-win for everyone.

NATO, for example, is in the midst of a mini-renaissance with a newly built headquarters in Brussels, new command headquarters, new troop and spending commitments from its members, and recently held the largest military exercise since the end of the Cold War.

Russia, once called “a gas tank masquerading as a great power” by John McCain, and nothing more than a “regional power” by Barack Obama, is not only “back,” but also buoyed by recent military successes in Syria – and has a lot to say about NATO that tends to get glossed over in the West.

Noting that NATO paints Russia as the aggressor while seemingly oblivious to their own transgressions, “as if it was us who bombed Yugoslavia in 1999 in violation of the UN Charter and the Helsinki Final Act,” wrote Russian Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergey Lavrov in early 2016. “As if it was Russia,” he continued, that “distorted UN Security Council resolutions by overthrowing Muammar Gaddafi’s regime by force in Libya in 2011.” He might have also made reference to the attempted undermining of the Syrian government.

But, other than its nuclear arsenal, Russia is no match for the combined military and economic weight of NATO and the EU. Sanctions continue to hit the Russian economy and even Canada has a greater GDP than Russia. As a result, Moscow has to resort to the tools it can afford, to push back where it can – including cyber-warfare, election intervention, poisoning its enemies, and spreading disinformation. It’s a strategy that is unlikely to change.

Also unlikely to change, is Canada’s military deployment strategy. It appears to be keeping both Washington and Brussels appeased (and possibly even happy). It’s a bold and constructive strategy that allows Canada’s military to take on key leadership roles.

Just as impressive is the ability of the Canadian Armed Forces to fully support its troops in multiple locations far from home. So, for now at least, the government’s focus is on NATO and, as for the UN, Ottawa’s moral and financial support will simply have to do.


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