OTTAWA - The Harper government struck a provocative pose Thursday, telling Russia to "back off" in Ukraine, promising to campaign for NATO membership on behalf of another former Soviet republic and urging all allies to do more.
The military alliance agreed in a Brussels meeting to establish a series of six command centres and two regional headquarters deep inside eastern Europe, creating important hubs for training and the possible deployment of troops in a crisis.
The defence ministers also said they will increase NATO's rapid reaction force to 30,000 troops.
The increasing violence in eastern Ukraine and apparent buildup of Russian forces in the region was condemned by both Defence Minister Rob Nicholson in Brussels and Prime Minister Stephen Harper back home.
"Canada has responded strongly, as have many of our allies, but I think all of this indicates we need, if anything, more," Harper said in Brampton, Ont. "We urge everybody to do more and have a forceful response, but obviously we will always work with our allies and our partners as we shape our response to those events."
Nicholson said deploying headquarters units to Poland, Estonia, Lithuania, Latvia, Romania and Bulgaria is only good planning and is not provocative, even though Russia's foreign minister paints it that way.
"Have a look at the way NATO runs and has always run," Nicholson said in a conference call following the meeting. "They should get the message we and other countries have been delivering, that they should back off their aggression against Ukraine."
Despite the tough talk, neither Harper, nor Nicholson would immediately commit to send soldiers to staff any of the eight command units, saying instead that the government will examine where it can best help.
Canada has a frigate as part of NATO's standing naval task force and recently saw four CF-18s return home from an air policing mission over the Baltic. It will send troops to further training exercises this year.
Nicholson also refused to commit to arming Ukraine, which the U.S. is actively considering.
The defence ministers also met government representatives from the former Soviet republic of Georgia, which is seeking admission to NATO — something Nicholson says Canada supports.
Supporting the tiny republic, which is sandwiched between Russia and Turkey, is a cost-free exercise for Canada, said defence expert Steve Saideman, of Carleton University.
"Nobody is going to allow Georgia into NATO any time soon," said Saideman. The former Soviet satellite fought a brief, nasty war with Russia in 2008 and NATO's commitment to defend member states has made it leery of getting too deeply involved there, beyond setting up a joint training centre.
The Harper government's reluctance to detail what it intends to contribute, over and above existing commitments, makes everything the prime minister and Nicholson have said ring hollow, Saideman said.
"On a lot of stuff, Canada can talk all it wants because it doesn't have to pay the cost.
"On putting troops into Europe, that costs money and this government doesn't want anything that costs money."