Canada is being urged to join a proposed effort to restart grain shipments from the beleaguered Ukrainian port of Odesa and to support calls to boost NATO’s presence on the military alliance’s eastern flank.
Foreign Affairs Minister Mélanie Joly met in Quebec City on Thursday with Baltic counterparts, including Lithuanian Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis, Estonian Foreign Affairs Minister Eva-Maria Liimets and Zanda Kalnina-Lukasevica, parliamentary secretary for Latvia’s Foreign Ministry.
Canada’s biggest military deployment is in the Baltics. Canada leads a multinational NATO battlegroup, including nearly 700 Canadian soldiers near Latvia, that is part of the alliance’s “Enhanced Forward Presence” in both the Baltic states and Poland, set up more than five years ago. It’s been called a “tripwire force” to deter Russian expansionism that might threaten countries once under Moscow’s rule in the Soviet Union.
The three Baltic countries, with support from Germany, are seeking NATO backing to upgrade these deployments to a force capable of not only deterring, but also thwarting, Russian efforts to seize territory on their eastern flanks. The Enhanced Forward Presence forces in these three countries are battlegroup-level commitments. The Baltic countries are asking for NATO partners to raise the deployments to brigade-level, which would be roughly three times as many troops and many more accompanying weapons.
Mr. Landsbergis, representing Lithuania, the largest of the Baltic countries, said Western allies must act to help Ukraine undo Russia’s blockade of the Ukrainian Black Sea port of Odesa. This includes transferring sufficient missiles and armaments to allow Ukraine to regain control of the port and forming an international escort to protect ships laden with grain and other commodities as they clear territorial waters and make their way out of range of Russian warships.
He said this would be a humanitarian mission to ensure that not only can Ukraine rebuild its economy but also get much-needed foodstuffs to international markets suffering from scarcity as a result of the war.
“Its ports are the lifeline for the Ukrainian economy. And there are so many countries depending on Ukrainian grain.”
Mr. Landsbergis said insurance companies are reluctant to insure ships in the region and he believed this protection would enable shippers to get the coverage they require.
He declined to say whether Ms. Joly indicated Canada would support these requests. “I’m satisfied with the level of conversation we’re having.”
NATO leaders gather June 29 and 30 in Madrid for a summit that will be dominated by Russia’s war on Ukraine.
Mr. Landsbergis said Germany backs the Baltic call for moving NATO’s deployment on its eastern flank to brigade-level. But the alliance has yet to reach a consensus, he said.
“Negotiations are ongoing in Brussels because not all allies are equally convinced that NATO should change its posture on the eastern flank. Even though all of us agree that the situation has changed dramatically security-wise, not everybody agrees that NATO has to reflect that,” the Foreign Minster said.
The Baltic states feel it’s no longer sufficient to plan for a potential conflict with Russia where Moscow seizes territory and NATO must fight to get it back. “The strategy should be deterrence by denial: We have to send a very clear message to Russia we will be denying them territory.”
He said Baltic citizens do not want to suffer the same atrocities uncovered after Moscow’s forces retreated from territory near Kyiv. Russian forces are alleged to have killed hundreds of civilians in Ukrainian cities such as Bucha.
“The feeling of people in the three Baltic capitals is that seeing Bucha and other cities that were reconquered by Ukrainians tells you what the situation would be in territories that are occupied by Russians – it’s a horrible picture,” Mr. Landsbergis said.
“We are telling our allies we will be defending every inch of our territory to the best of our capacity and we would like the same commitment from our allies.”
He acknowledged it could be a difficult and lengthier process for some allies to boost NATO forces to brigade-level on the eastern flank.
“That’s why it has to be a political decision where we politically say it’s super important and then we figure out the practical details.”
Mr. Landsbergis said he is concerned about growing fatigue in the West regarding the conflict and rising concerns about challenges such as inflation and food scarcity.
“The Russians are now testing the rule book of the rules-based world order and if they are able to rewrite passages of it, and then sue for peace and the world agrees to this – this is a dark scenario for many countries.”
Retired Canadian major-general Denis Thompson said he believes Russia is too preoccupied in Ukraine right now to attack another neighbour. “But it’s possible in the future depending on how the war in Ukraine goes that they could make an attempt for part of Finland or the Baltics,” he said.
He said Russian President Vladimir Putin might one day justify another territorial seizure on the pretext of protecting Russian speakers.
Mr. Thompson said increasing NATO’s presence in the Baltics to brigade strength would be a serious investment in military infrastructure. It could possibly mean Canada as a leader in the Latvian deployment – which includes 10 countries – would be expected to make the kind of commitment it made in Afghanistan: something akin to a battle group.
A spokesman for Defence Minister Anita Anand’s office did not directly answer whether Canada supports a call to move to brigade-level NATO deployments in the Baltics. “Canada will continue to stand by our NATO allies, and we remain ready to help defend every inch of NATO territory,” press secretary Daniel Minden said.
Ms. Joly’s press secretary Adrien Blanchard did not answer whether Canada would back an operation to help the port of Odesa reopen shipments.
However, “Canada is working with its G7 and European Union partners to free Ukrainian grains and ensure countries receive their shipments,” Mr. Blanchard said. “Whether it’s finding routes that go through other European countries, such as Romania, or working with the UN to find diplomatic solutions, Canada is at the heart of discussions on food security and we are bringing concrete solutions to the table.”
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