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Canada boosting NATO military role as alliance eyes major strategic shift over Russia

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Canada is boosting its role in NATO deterrence efforts in Latvia amid a major shift by the alliance to a more assertive defensive posture in the wake of Russian atrocities in Ukrainian cities of Bucha and Mariupol.

The message the alliance aims to send to Russia is clear, said Latvian Prime Minister Krišjānis Kariņš.

“We are dead serious about defending ourselves, so don’t even think about coming this way.”

Kariņš spoke alongside Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in a press conference on Thursday afternoon that saw Trudeau announce one Canadian general officer and up to six staff officers will be heading to Latvia to support and contribute to the leadership of the NATO’s Multinational Division North.

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The division is currently led by Denmark and supports defence planning for the Baltic member states, along with coordination of the activities by NATO’s Enhanced Forward Presence in Latvia, Estonia, Lithuania and Poland. NATO describes those battle groups as “robust and combat-ready forces.”

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Canada leads the Enhanced Forward Presence battle group in Latvia.

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The deployment comes as NATO leaders prepare to meet in Madrid, Spain, late next month. While there, they are expected to chart a more assertive defensive vision for the future of the alliance amid what Trudeau described as the “spectacularly poor” decision by Russia to invade Ukraine in February.

“We realize that we may, we do, have to reassess the risk posture and how much we need to stand together against potential Russian incursion and aggression and that is a conversation we are having towards Madrid and we will certainly be having in Madrid,” Trudeau said.

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He added that the longstanding operating assumptions of NATO have been that in the event a member is invaded by Russia, other members would respond under Article 5 to push them back out.

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But the massacres and atrocities committed by Russians against Ukrainians fundamentally change that.

“The other thing that has given people pause is Bucha, is Mariupol, is the atrocities that Russians are committing in territory they occupied,” Trudeau said.

“The idea that there would be even an understanding that ‘the Russians could advance but then we’d come in and push them back’ as something that is in any way acceptable is something we have to re-calculate.”

Read more: One month after liberation, Bucha’s morgue is the city’s new nucleus

Russia’s brutality in Ukraine has left a trail of horrific human suffering and spurred multiple avenues of international investigations. Those are probing the allegations of war crimes, systemic sexual violence and crimes against humanity that emerged as Russian forces retreated from cities like Bucha in March.

The bulk of Russia’s military effort is now refocused in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region, with Russian forces besieging and devastating the port city of Mariupol.

Yet amid the horrors, Ukrainians have mounted a fierce defence of their country that rallied and continues to rally determined support from states around the world. That support includes hundreds of billions of dollars in military equipment, including weapons, and economic aid along with unprecedented rounds of sanctions against Russian President Vladimir Putin’s political allies and inner circle.

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Canadian officials and allied leaders have consistently framed the invasion as an existential threat to the rules-based international order established in the aftermath of World War Two, and the resulting allied outcry sparked fundamental security policy shifts in European states like Germany and Switzerland.

Switzerland ditched its longstanding neutral position to join European Union allies with sanctions on Russian elites and key state institutions, as well as an asset freeze.

Germany vowed a major defence spending boost to meet the NATO two-per-cent-of-GDP target and agreed to send military weapons to Ukraine, a decision made all the more significant by the country’s longstanding position against sending arms to conflict zones.

Canada opted not to aim for the two-per-cent target in the most recent federal budget, but did announce a defence spending boost.

Kariņš said his country is also increasing its spending to 2.2 per cent of GDP while aiming to hit 2.5 per cent in the future in response to the Russian threat, and said it is crucial that NATO members “not be afraid to be strong” in defence of shared strategic values of democracy and sovereignty.

He added countries must show “that we’re willing to back up our support of these values with strength and might if necessary.”

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