Canada to give troops for NATO force, ready to talk to Russia

OTTAWA (Reuters) - Canada confirmed on Thursday it would provide a significant number of troops for a new 4,000-strong NATO force on Russia’s border but also said it was ready to talk to Moscow in a bid to reduce tensions.

A NATO flag flies at the Alliance headquarters in Brussels during a NATO ambassadors meeting on the situation in Ukraine and the Crimea region, March 2, 2014. REUTERS/Yves Herman

Canada, the United States, Germany and Britain each will command a battalion in the new unit, which is designed to help deter any show of force such as that deployed by Russia in Crimea in 2014.

Canadian Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan, who also condemned the actions of Russian-backed militants in Ukraine, declined to give many details about the new force. NATO diplomats say the Canadians will be based in Latvia.

Sajjan announced the move a day after U.S. President Barack Obama gave a speech in the Canadian Parliament and told Canada it needed to make a bigger contribution to NATO.

“As NATO we do need to be able to send a strong message that the actions in Crimea and Ukraine are not acceptable,” Sajjan said in a phone interview.

Earlier this month, Reuters reported that Washington would ask Canada for help to establish the force, given a lack of enthusiasm by other members.

“Thank you, Canada,” NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said in a Twitter post. “All four battalions for NATO’s east now have a lead nation.”

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is due to unveil Canada’s contribution at a NATO summit in Poland next week.

The Baltic states and Poland fear the force is too small and symbolic to deter an attack. The alliance’s military chief says there is no imminent threat from Russia.

Sajjan said while Canada strongly opposed what had happened in Crimea and Ukraine, it wanted to “send an equally strong message that we are open for dialogue, that we want to be able to reduce the tension.”

Canada’s relations with Moscow are chilly. The ruling Liberals took over last year from the Conservatives, who had cut most high-level ties and slapped sanctions on Russian firms, officials and business executives.

In January, Foreign Minister Stephane Dion said Canada would maintain the punitive measures for as long as necessary while seeking to re-engage with Russia.

Reporting by David Ljunggren; Editing by Jonathan Oatis and Bill Trott