Canada is joining its NATO partners in sending six CF-18s to Eastern Europe (some uncertainty on exactly where despite references to a specific base in Poland) and 20 CF personnel to help staff NATO headquarters. This is both ordinary and remarkable.
It is ordinary in the sense that Canada has signed onto every NATO mission as far as I can tell from defending West Europe from the Soviet Union to deploying into Bosnia to dropping bombs on Kosovo to participating in various missions in Afghanistan to dropping bombs on Libya to now defending Eastern Europe from Russia. That is pretty consistent. Six CF-18s are also the standard Canadian package for doing NATO reassurance. Up to now, this package has been delivered, as it where, to Iceland, as Canada has taken a few turns in the NATO mission of flying fighter planes over that otherwise defence-less NATO member. In a sense, what Canada is doing now is the same thing it has done before but much further to the east.
However, the deployment is also remarkable in that this mission is clearly aimed at sending a bunch of signals. It is meant to be part of a NATO effort to remind Russia that countries that are members of NATO are untouchable. As an alliance, there is no commitment to defend Ukraine, but there is a very strong commitment to defend Poland, the Baltic Republics, and the rest from the old and new threat to the east. It is meant as the name of this effort, a reassurance package, to signal to these eastern members that there is a big line between them and Ukraine—and that they are on the safer, guaranteed side of that line. Sending these planes is also a signal back to Canada, to the voters that Stephen Harper and John Baird seem to have been playing towards—the Ukrainian-Canadians. These planes really can do nothing to help Ukraine, but given the rhetoric of the past few weeks, this was the least the Harper government could do.
This package of planes and a small staff also makes sense when thinking about the biggest priority for this government—minimizing expenses. This government cares most about balancing the budget to meet its 2015 election commitment, so a larger intervention is very unlikely. Sending a battalion for months on end would add up. The planes and small staff will cost some dollars, but doing more would cost more.
The deployment is also remarkable in another way—that this represents a reversal of sorts for Harper. Canada has pulled out of a few collective efforts at NATO—to run the AWACS plans, to develop and run drones—and has been seen by some Europeans as almost hostile to the alliance. Embracing NATO now makes sense given the positions staked by Harper and Baird on Ukraine, but still serves as a shift from recent behavior.
One of the closing lines I give when I talk about the new book on NATO in Afghanistan is an adaptation of Churchill: NATO is the worst form of multilateral military cooperation except for all of the others. Even the Harper government has realized this. While NATO presents many difficulties including uneven burden-sharing and the likelihood of being lost in the cacophony of members with their various complaints, it is still the best organization for most security issues. So, Canada does what it is expected to—about as much and as little as it can do.
[For my abbreviated takes on this on television, see here for CTV (starting at 7:40) and here for Global National starting at 2:16.]