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What is Canada's obligation under NATO in the face of the Ukraine-Russia crisis?

Canada has been a prominent voice of support for Ukraine in the face of the ongoing Russia-Ukraine crisis, both as a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and as an ally.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau recently announced a $120-million loan to Ukraine to help bolster its economy, and Canada has sanctioned more than 400 individuals and entities, in line with similar EU actions.

Last week, the Ukrainian Embassy in Ottawa called on Canada to send defensive weapons to the country, an action that so far Trudeau has declined to commit to.

Canada’s close relationship to Ukraine is being watched closely as the standoff continues in eastern Europe, with the question – what is Canada, and by extension NATO, obligated to do in the worst case scenario?


NATO has been a staple in Canadian foreign policy since Canada signed as an original member in 1949.

With the ongoing crisis between Ukraine and Russia, NATO members and its allies have placed several hard lines of deterrence against further Russian aggression in the face of thousands of Russian troops amassed at Ukraine’s border.

There are currently 30 member states in the alliance, including Germany, Belgium, Hungary, Iceland, Canada, the U.S., the U.K., Italy, Denmark, Norway and France.

A NATO “decision” is announced only after a consensus has been reached by all member countries.

Canada’s involvement with and contributions to NATO run deep.

“NATO has provided security and stability in the North Atlantic region, North America, Western and Eastern Europe, all regions of importance to Canada,” professor of political science at the Royal Military College of Canada Joel Sokolsky told Monday in a telephone interview. “It allows Canada to participate in the collective defence arrangements amongst the various allies for this for this region, and it gives Canada an international profile that it otherwise wouldn't have.”

But membership also comes with adhering to the articles of the NATO agreement, one of which is “Article 5 – Collective Defence,” where an attack against one ally (member country) is considered an attack against all allies, a principle enshrined in the Washington Treaty, which created the organization.

“The article itself doesn't specify what that response is. It could include armed forces. It could include any other form of assistance that's in the event of an attack on an ongoing basis,” Sokolsky explained. “Our obligation is to provide and contribute to the combined military and political activities of the alliance to secure the members and provide stability, principally in Europe.”

NATO invoked Article 5 for the first time in its history after Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks against the United States, but the alliance has taken collective defence measures on several occasions, including during the war in Syria and in the wake of Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014.

Now, with tensions rising between the West and Russia over Ukraine, NATO -- and by extension Canada -- may have a large part to play in what’s to come.

As Ukraine is not a NATO member, Canada has no direct obligation to provide a military response as it would if Germany, the U.K. or the U.S. were attacked, but due to the country’s close ties to NATO and the strategic ramifications of the Russia-Ukraine crisis, experts say that Canada will most likely send some form of support and watch closely what other NATO members are doing. 


Ukraine is not a member of NATO, but has a long history with the organization since the 1990s, with Ukraine actively contributing to NATO-led operations and missions.

Since the 2014 annexation of Crimea by Russia, NATO has stepped up its presence in the Black Sea and co-ordinated maritime co-operation with Ukraine and Georgia.

NATO’s support to Ukraine is laid out in the “Comprehensive Assistance Package” for Ukraine, which was decided at the 2016 NATO Summit in Warsaw, and Ukrainian parliament adopted legislation in 2017 that made it a policy objective for the country to join NATO, which was added to the country’s constitution in 2019.

In 2020, with the election of President Volodymyr Zelensky, the approval of Ukraine’s new National Security Strategy was announced, which carves out provisions for the development of a partnership with NATO and the aim of eventual membership.

Despite not being a member of NATO, Sokolsky said Ukraine has a special relationship with the organization that explains why Canada and other NATO members and allies are keen to support it.

“It's the way in which Russia is conducting its policy, essentially threatening a sovereign country in Europe, on NATO's border, dictating terms that it should not join NATO,” Sokolsky said. “The concern here is, is this just the beginning of pressure that could be mounted on countries which are NATO members, particularly the very vulnerable Baltic States? What confidence will these countries have in the alliance if efforts aren't made to deter Russia from attacking Ukraine?”

Sokolsky said if Russia is allowed to dictate to Ukraine what it can and cannot do, it raises questions about the veracity and effectiveness of NATO going forward.

Sokolsky’s sentiments were echoed by Aurel Braun, professor of international relations and political science at the University of Toronto and associate with the Davis Centre for Russian and Eurasian Studies at Harvard University, in a telephone interview with Monday.

“Any further attack on Ukraine, is viewed as an enormous threat by many of the NATO states that are on the borders of what was the Soviet Union or some of them were part of the Soviet Union,” Braun said. “We need to understand that the alliance provides security for everyone …we live in a globalized system. What happens in little Estonia will be felt in Canada eventually, just not immediately.”

Braun said it would be wise for Canada to do the maximum it can for Ukraine as an important signal of deterrence to the Russians.

Braun describes deterrence in relation to NATO, Ukraine and Russia as a “psychological relationship,” operating on the premise that it is an attempt to get the opposing party to engage in a rational calculation that would come to the conclusion that any act of aggression that they engage in will incur costs that outweigh the possible benefits.

“Russians have massed huge forces around Ukraine. Ready to invade. That's like holding a gun to your head,” Braun said.

”We don't have the same obligations with Ukraine as we have towards NATO member countries, [but] abandoning Ukraine would do enormous damage to all the other NATO states in Eastern Europe and ultimately to us as well as they say…we have a dog in the race," he continued. "It's not just that we have a large ethnic population and we have a soft spot for Ukraine. This is called strategic thinking.”


A big question is what NATO and Canada will do if the Ukraine-Russia crisis escalates – either with strikes against Ukraine or an invasion.

Canada has more than 500 troops stationed near Riga, Latvia, as part of Operation REASSURANCE. Canadian troops are leading a NATO Battle Group which forms the core of the organization’s presence in eastern Europe in response to Russian aggression and Crimea’s annexation.

“Canada's already on the ground in the vicinity,” Sokolsky said of Canadian troops’ potential contribution to Ukraine. “I suspect that we may have some reinforcement of the position in Latvia, but we don’t have the large number of forces that we would send troops into the Baltic…we are already on the front line if we are in Latvia.”

Sokolsky posited that Canada may send planes or ships to NATO bases, but said the prospect is unlikely of “direct intervention,” or Canadian soldiers fighting on the front lines in Ukraine against Russia.

“I don’t think any ally is going to do that, including the United States,” he said, “If the Europeans should move, the French, the British, the Germans –after all this is in their backyard – I think Canada will take its cue from what other allies are going to do.”

Braun said Canada’s commitment to Ukraine through military training via Operation UNIFIER with approximately 200 troops deployed every six months is a “limited but valuable role.”

The military operation currently works as a support mission to Ukrainian Security Forces with training and non-lethal military gear such as communications systems, mobile field hospitals, explosive disposal equipment and medical kits.

“It's not that we have a military commitment inside Ukraine,” Braun said of Canada and Ukraine’s relationship. ”We've provided significant economic aid to Ukraine, adding up to a billion dollars over many years because Ukraine has been struggling economically…The West needs to do whatever it can to deter that invasion. So the help to give Ukraine is not only substantive, it's also symbolic.” 

Edited by Producer Sonja Puzic



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