Ambassador of Canada to Ukraine (2014-19), and Serbia, Montenegro and North Macedonia (2011-14)
Discussions about Canada’s role in the world often start out with lofty ideal constructs, and end with gloomy conclusions about lack of capacity and/or seriousness. Last week’s trip by Minister of Foreign Affairs Francois-Philippe Champagne to Athens, Vienna, Brussels and Vilnius took some steps toward turning that dispiritingly inverted logic right side up: go into a region where we have the alliance commitments and deployed capacity to be relevant, and to try to exercise some of that clout.
In my time as Ambassador of Canada in Kyiv (2014-2019), I was acutely aware that, thanks to a series of decisions made by Ottawa in 2014-15, and renewed since, Canada matters in countries such as Latvia, Ukraine and Romania. For them, Canada’s NATO Forward Presence Battalion lead in Latvia, deployment of the biggest Western military training mission in Ukraine, regular commitment to air policing over Romania and the sensitive Black Sea coast, and participation in Baltic and Black Sea naval patrols mean predictable middle power backing from a trusted transatlantic partner. This is especially valued at a time when signals from Washington are contradictory at best.
Together, Operations Reassurance (Latvia, Romania, naval deployment) and Unifier (Ukraine) have nearly 1200 troops deployed, at a cost to taxpayers of about $160 million in 2019/20, and close to half a billion cumulatively since 2015/16. The Canadian-led battlegroup in Latvia is the biggest (1525 troops) and most diverse (10 allies in total) of the four deployed by NATO. Canada’s troop contribution to the BG (527) is the same as Germany’s in neighbouring Lithuania (also 527). We’re not in the middle of the pack here. We’re co-leads key allies.
As our string of deployments came together thanks to differing policy drivers – directly and indirectly countering Russian aggression, responding to Obama Administration expectations, NATO burden-sharing – Canadians have never really looked at them as the significant and potentially synergistic Baltic-to-Black Sea presence that they represent along NATO’s Eastern flank. It is only belatedly that Global Affairs and National Defence are gearing up to take an integrated view of the region, as mission renewals come due in the next two-three years.
Canadian media reporting on the post-electoral crisis in Belarus has generally started from the premise that this is a worthy civil society uprising in a faraway country where we have no real interests – ignoring the fact that Canadian forces share tripwire responsibility for the security of allied Latvia right on Belarus’ northern border, and provide security support to Ukraine directly to the south.
Minister Champagne’s stop in Vilnius was therefore particularly interesting to observe, with two trans-boundary sessions added to the standard bilateral program: a session with Foreign Minsters of all three Baltic States, and a meeting with Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, the apparent winner of the disputed August 2020 Belarus elections, and exiled leader of resistance to the shaken Lukashenko regime.
With the United States unable, for electoral reasons, to provide much more than a perfunctory Pompeo tweet to address the Belarus situation, Minister Champagne took the opening to join the Baltic trio at the leading edge of democracy support, especially as Canada has been among the first to announce new aid for Belarusian civil society campaigners.
Similarly, having been the first Western foreign ministers to engage with Ms Tsikhanouskaya (in mid-August, within a week of the disputed elections), Minister Champagne was able to get a first-hand sense of a situation being radicalized by an increasingly desperate and violent President Lukashenko, and the stepped up national strike and woman-led civil disobedience being planned in response.
In Vilnius, Minister Champagne took a seat at a regional table where Canada is respected for its boots-on-the-ground contribution and wanted for its reputational clout on issues such as human rights and women, peace and security. Leveraging this engagement and taking a more strategic view of our assets already deployed from the Baltic to the Black Sea, will strengthen our hand in Brussels, with ancillary benefits for our NATO and EU relationships. It is also an excellent fit with the foreign policy papers on the Baltics and Ukraine issued this past week by the Biden campaign. Where we actually do have some bite, it’s well worth showing up to deliver a well-considered bark.