Canada is extending its military mission in Latvia as part of a continued NATO effort to stave off further Russian aggression following its invasion of Ukraine two weeks ago, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Tuesday.
But he offered little clarity when asked whether Canada will boost domestic spending on the military to hit the promised two per cent of GDP target agreed to by NATO allies in 2014.
“We understand the urgency that is presented right now in the world with Ukrainians standing strong against this illegal Russian invasion,” Trudeau said when asked whether Canada will increase spending to meet the NATO target and urgently replace the weapons being offered to Ukraine.
“Those weapons are much more useful and in the coming weeks in the hands of Ukrainian soldiers fighting for their lives than they would be in Canadian hands. But of course, we need to make sure we replace those weapons rapidly.”
Operation Reassurance was set to expire in 2023 and is currently Canada’s largest military deployment abroad.
The mission sees Canada leading a battle group of troops from NATO nations with the goal of deterring Russian aggression into the Baltic countries that form the military alliance’s eastern flank.
Trudeau and Defence Minister Anita Anand spoke from Latvia, where they have been meeting with NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, Latvian Prime Minister Arturs Krišjānis Kariņš and Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez as part of a visit to Europe to discuss Russia’s war.
Earlier in the day, Trudeau told the leaders Canada would stand with them to battle not only the Kremlin’s war on Ukraine but also its cyberattacks on their countries.
He later met with Stoltenberg at the Adazi Military Base, where NATO troops are stationed for Operation Reassurance. It is one of four similar efforts in the Baltics and Poland, designed to demonstrate the strength of the NATO alliance in the region against Moscow.
Since the invasion began, western allies including Canada have punished Russia and its collaborators with severe sanctions, and have threatened to impose more if Moscow continues its aggression in Ukraine.
In addition to sanctions, Canada has promised to continue to support Ukraine in its fight against Russia. Alongside weapon shipments, Anand told Global News’ Mercedes Stephenson in Latvia that Ottawa is looking to provide Ukraine’s army with drone cameras.
Ottawa has also extended its military training mission in Ukraine, Operation Unifier, until 2025.
However, Canadian troops assigned to that mission have been moved to Poland due to the war.
Will Canada raise defence spending to NATO target?
Russia’s continued war in Ukraine is spurring some countries to boost defence spending after years of lagging behind promised increases to hit a target agreed upon by NATO member states.
Denmark on Sunday announced it will ramp up defence spending until it hits two per cent of GDP by 2033. That will translate to a boost of roughly $2.65 billion in U.S. dollars, or 18 billion Danish crowns, annually.
The Nordic country and NATO member has faced pressure to do more to hit the NATO target.
In 2019, Denmark’s defence spending sat at 1.35 per cent of its GDP and officials there had vowed to get that up to 1.5 per cent by next year.
Germany, as well, promised in recent days to increase its own defence spending.
The country will rapidly boost defence spending to represent more than two per cent of its GDP, and up from the 1.53 per cent that it had sat at last year, Chancellor Olaf Scholz said on Sunday.
The German government had decided to supply 100 billion euros for military investments from its 2022 budget, Scholz said. Germany’s entire defence budget by comparison was 47 billion euros in 2021.
In Canadian dollars, those amounts are $141 billion and $66 billion respectively.
But while experts say those increases amp up the pressure on Canada, there are still few signs for whether the federal government plans to follow suit and match European allies.
“I think that puts an enormous amount of pressure on Canada,” said David Perry, vice president of the Canadian Global Affairs Institute and an expert on Canadian military spending.
Perry said that historically, Canada and Germany have both been comfortable spending below the two per cent target despite having large economies, largely because they were not alone in doing so.
“If the Germans are really going to make a commitment now to step up to the two per cent pledge, that puts Canada much more isolated territory,” he said.
Canada’s defence spending has long lagged behind the NATO target. However, the actual dollar amount as well as the percentage of GDP is moving up.
The 2017 defence policy reset known as Strong, Secure, Engaged laid out a roadmap for boosting military spending by 70 per cent over the course of the coming decade. That is projected to see spending rise from $18.9 billion in 2016/17 to $32.7 billion by 2026/27.
For years, Trudeau and Canadian government officials have defended the levels of spending in place and asserted that Canada contributes in a variety of ways to NATO operations, including by stepping up to lead battle groups like the one in Latvia.
But NATO officials and American leaders have pressed for more, with the dispute over spending levels spilling out into the public view during the Trump administration.
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Global News reported in 2019 that U.S. officials had sent a “blunt” letter to the Department of National Defence that sources at the time said expressed frustration and criticism with Canada’s defence spending.
Ten of the 29 NATO member states hit the two per cent target last year, according to a breakdown of defence expenditures maintained by NATO.
As of June 2021, Canada sat in the fifth-from-last spot.
The only other countries that spent lower percentages of their GDP were Slovenia, Belgium, Spain and Luxemburg. Those that hit or exceeded the two per cent target were Greece, the U.S., Croatia, the U.K., Estonia, Latvia, Poland, Lithuania, Romania and France.
Steve Saideman holds the Paterson Chair in International Affairs at Carleton University’s Norman Paterson School of International Affairs. He specializes in Canadian defence policy and said the question of military contributions is more nuanced than simply hitting a target.
“The two percent measure is a mixed measure because it’s the aspirational goal, but it doesn’t really tell you whether you’re buying the right stuff,” he said.
“Greece exceeds two percent, and Greece is not considered to be a very reliable ally that has great equipment.”
Saideman said making progress on boosting military recruitment and procuring better equipment will go a long ways — so long as Canada continues to show up for allied operations.
“I mean, Canada was not criticized for being under two per cent when it had 3,000 troops in Kandahar and was engaged in difficult combat,” he said. “So if Canada keeps showing up as a framework nation, leading the Latvian mission, I think that’s more important than two per cent”
Boosting military recruitment has been an ongoing challenge for the Canadian Forces, as has been making sure that the money being set aside for large procurements actually gets out the door.
That’s been a challenge for years in a procurement system snarled by delays and political reluctance to commit to high-cost purchases. The COVID-19 pandemic has extended some of those challenges.
Earlier this week, the government pushed back the timeline by one year for contracting out training for the future fighter jet procurement, citing “the impacts of COVID-19 on military-to-military and industry engagements” as procurement officials gathered the necessary details about options.
However, a spokesperson for the Royal Canadian Air Force said the delay will not impact the procurement schedule for the future fighter jet contract, which is set to be awarded this year.
Saideman said while there had been concerns among military leaders that significant government spending on pandemic measures could lead to the defence budget being cut, that likely won’t happen.
“I think that that we will not see defence cuts anytime in the near future,” he said. “We’ll probably see more spending — we’re not going to see two per cent.”
Perry described the challenge moving forward as one rooted in historic under-spending.
“We’re essentially facing the same kind of scenario with the military that the Government of Canada is with 24 Sussex,” he said.
“If you don’t put money into something for decades, when it comes around to actually doing that renovation and trying to modernize what you’re you’re looking at, the bill is enormous and it’s hard to do all that work all at the same time.“
— with files from Crystal Oag, Aaron D’Andrea, Ashleigh Stewart, The Canadian Press and Reuters.