Trudeau sanctions more Russians amid NATO pressure

BRUSSELS — Prime Minister Justin Trudeau levied sanctions against dozens more Russian officials for their role in Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine, but offered only vague promises in the face of growing pressure to increase Canadian defense spending.

The prime minister announced the new sanctions against 160 members of the Russian Federation Council as well as a coming ban on the export of certain goods and technologies to Russia on Thursday, wrapping up a whirlwind trip to Brussels.

That trip included an address to the European Parliament as well as meetings with leaders from the G7 and the NATO military alliance, members of which pledged to draw up plans by June for boosting spending on their respective militaries.

Yet while Trudeau said Canada agreed to that commitment, he repeatedly sidestepped questions during a closing news conference about whether his government will in fact inject substantial new money into the Canadian Armed Forces.

The prime minister instead referred back to the Liberal government’s previous promises through its 2017 defense policy to invest billions of dollars in the military in the form of new equipment and personnel.

“The good thing is over the past number of years, as a government, we have continued to step up,” he said. “We’ve increased our investments in defence, we’ve increased our contributions to NATO. We’ll continue to look at how we will continue to step up.”

All NATO members pledged in 2014 to spend two per cent of their national gross domestic product in the next decade, and NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said Thursday that allies had agreed to “redouble” those efforts.

Allies will submit additional plans on how to meet the pledge in time for their next meeting, slated for June in Madrid, Spain, he said. “And I welcome that a number of allies today announced plans for significant increases in defense spending.”

Canada currently spends about 1.39 per cent of its GDP on defence. Even with the billions of new dollars promised by the Liberals’ defense policy for new aircraft, ships and other equipment, the country is projected to fall short of NATO’s target.

Yet the commitment to boost defense spending twists the arm of the minority Liberal government to invest billions of additional dollars, only days after committing to the NDP to introduce a bevy of new social programs in return for its support in Parliament.

Any new spending would have to muscle space alongside pharmacare and dental care inked into the new confidence and supply agreement with the NDP in exchange for the opposition party’s backing on key votes.

Asked how the government can fulfill those promises while also increasing defense spending without affecting the country’s long-term fiscal health, Trudeau again referenced the Liberals’ 2017 defense policy.

“We have always been committed to doing more on defence, and we will continue to do that,” he said.

“The agreement with the NDP is very much about delivering on specific things for Canadians, but doesn’t in any way impact on the choices we make and areas not covered by that agreement. Canadians expect us to be fiscally responsible.”

Defense analyst David Perry of the Canadian Global Affairs Institute has estimated Canada would need to spend about $16 billion more per year on defense to meet NATO’s target. It currently spends about $30 billion per year.

“There’s no kind of easy, quick solution where the government waves a magic wand and we’re at two per cent,” Perry said.

A Scotiabank analysis suggests the current political landscape makes it hard to see how the Liberals could reach NATO’s spending targets in the short term.

Defense spending was only one area of ​​focus for NATO and G7 leaders, whose final communiqués blasted Moscow and vowed further support for Ukraine.

NATO leaders called on Moscow to immediately instigate a ceasefire in Ukraine, and warned of “severe consequences” should Russia use chemical or biological weapons.

Their communiqué also took aim at recent comments by Chinese officials about the war in Ukraine and NATO, and called on Beijing to “cease amplifying the Kremlin’s false narratives” and work toward a peaceful resolution to the conflict.

Europe faces its biggest security threat since the Second World War due to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, an attack that has killed hundreds of civilians and thousands of soldiers, and displaced 10 million people since the fighting started one month ago.

Earlier in the day, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy delivered an urgent plea for military aid to NATO leaders, pointedly chastising them for failing to do everything possible to help his country.

Zelenskyy repeated his request for NATO to enforce a no-fly zone over Ukrainian airspace to protect his people from Russian bombs and missiles — an ask that NATO’s secretary general has ruled out.

In the text of his address posted to his official website, Zelenskyy also criticized NATO members for failing to provide a clear response to his previous plea, or to subsequent requests for fighter jets and tanks to bolster his forces.

Zelenskyy didn’t blame NATO for the war in his country, but his remarks suggested deep frustration with the seeming lack of political will among alliance members to provide Ukraine all the weapons needed to fend of Putin’s forces and prevent further deaths.

“Ukraine is very much waiting, awaiting real action, real security guarantees, from those whose word is trustworthy, and whose actions can keep the peace,” reads Zelenskyy’s posted remarks.

Trudeau indicated during his news conference that Canada is looking at buying and sending more weapons to Ukraine after Defense Minister Anita Anand indicated earlier this month that the Canadian Armed Forces’ own stockpile has been tapped out.

“As President Zelenskyy has been asking for various new pieces of equipment, we’re looking to see what we can send,” he said.

“We’re also committed to looking at procuring that equipment directly for the Ukrainians in other ways by working with allies and making investments necessary.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 24, 2022.

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