12/08/2015 05:03 EST | Updated 12/08/2016 05:12 EST

Despite Harper's Russia Rhetoric, Tories Rejected Permanent Bases For Troops In Europe

Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press
OTTAWA — Despite its relentless rhetoric against Russia, the former Conservative government quietly set clear, consistent limits on its support for NATO as the alliance sought to reassure jittery eastern European countries after the annexation of Crimea, newly released documents reveal.

A May 27, 2014 directive authorizing the military to conduct a wide range of operations in Europe explicitly ruled out a return to Cold War-style permanent bases and instead committed the country to establishing a presence through the rotation of troops, jets and warships on a six month basis.

Now in Opposition, the Conservatives have been quick to criticize the Liberals for setting limits and re-orienting the country's combat mission against the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, defence experts say.

stephen harper vladimir putin

Former prime minister Stephen Harper walks past Russian President Vladimir Putin at the 2013 G20 Summit. (Photo: Adrian Wyld/CP)

The restraints for Operation Reassurance in eastern Europe were laid out in the 26-page directive, obtained by The Canadian Press under access to information legislation. They paint in the clearest terms yet how disconnected the Harper government's "soaring rhetoric" was from the reality of what it was prepared to do in concert with allies, the analysts say.

During his last year in office, Stephen Harper faced criticism for talking tough on the threats posed by Vladimir Putin's regime in Ukraine as well as the Islamic State, while at the same time cutting defence spending.

There are several lessons for Justin Trudeau's new government, says Dave Perry, of the Global Affairs Institute.

The constant beating of the drum by the Conservative government created out-sized expectations among allies and friends, such as Ukraine — relationships that will need mending and tending in the coming year, he said.

"If the new government can more closely align its descriptions of what it thinks should happen in the world with the actual resources, it will be doing our international policy a good service," said Perry.

The army was ordered to create a "persistent presence in Europe" by making available a single company of soldiers — roughly 150 people — who would rotate in and out the region for exercises, said the directive signed by now-retired general Tom Lawson, the former chief of defence staff.

"The mismatch between what we were saying and the actual contributions wasn't helpful."

It also allotted six CF-18 fighter-bombers on a regular basis and unspecified number of "naval platforms."

Canada has kept a frigate on duty with NATO's standing task force and fighters have participated in an air-policing mission over the Baltic States.

At the height of the Afghan war, Canada was deploying up to 3,000 troops, aircrew and headquarters personnel for six-to-nine-month rotations and Perry says the Conservatives could have easily committed a bigger force to NATO, had they chosen to do so.

"I don't think there is anyone who would expect Canada to single-handedly solve all of the world's problems, but the mismatch between what we were saying and the actual contributions wasn't helpful," said Perry. "Ultimately, we were not as effective an actor on the international stage as we could have been."

Trudeau's government faced criticism in the House of Commons this week for planning to withdraw CF-18 warplanes from the fight against the Islamic State at the same time other allies are ramping up their contributions to the air campaign against extremists.

George Petrolekas, of the Conference of Defence Associations Institute, says it's pretty hard — at this point — to criticize the Liberals when they haven't presented a plan as to what the new mission will look like.