National News

Baird skeptical Putin will withdraw troops

By Mike Blanchfield, The Canadian Press

OTTAWA - Canada's foreign affairs minister expressed skepticism Thursday about Russian President Vladimir Putin's pledge to pull his country's troops from Ukraine's border.

"We would obviously want to verify any commitment made by the leadership of the Russian Federation," John Baird said in the House of Commons. "Their actions in Ukraine over the past six months have been deplorable."

Baird's response echoed the view in Washington and at NATO.

"I have very good vision. But while we've noted Russia's statement, so far we haven't seen any — any — indication of troops pulling back," NATO secretary general Anders Fogh Rasmussen said on Twitter.

Baird also said Canada would be expanding its sanctions against Russia even as a report out of Moscow suggested Canada and the U.S. would face retaliation for such actions.

"No other government has stood up more forcefully and aggressively against the Russian aggression in Ukraine," Baird said.

"This government is very proud of our record. We have expanded the sanctions list on a number of occasions and we will be expanding it again in short order."

Russia's ITAR-TASS news agency quoted a Russian foreign ministry spokesman on Thursday as saying the Canadian and U.S. sanctions would not go unanswered.

"Sanctions are not our method, but unfriendly actions force us to give a rebuff," spokesman Alexander Lukashevich was quoted as saying.

"The names of new persons on the Russian 'stop-list' will not be announced publicly, but those who have been put on it will learn about that when they apply for a visa."

Earlier Thursday, James Bezan, the parliamentary secretary to Defence Minister Rob Nicholson, said Canada would have to do more in NATO unless the crisis between Russia and the West manages to "de-escalate."

Bezan suggested the Conservative government should revisit its decision to cancel Canadian participation in the NATO surveillance program known as the Airborne Warning and Control System, or AWACS.

"On the standpoint of responsibilities within NATO, things change, there's no question," Bezan told an audience of diplomats, bureaucrats and military brass at a security symposium sponsored by the European Union.

"We do have to revisit, in my personal opinion, AWACS ... and how we move forward."

Canada has made numerous contributions to recent NATO efforts in Europe. It has sent a frigate to join NATO's standing task force in the eastern Mediterranean Sea, six CF-18 jet fighters to operate out of Romania, and troops from 3rd Battalion, Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry to participate in a land exercise in Poland.

Bezan said he also expects the deployment of the 50 Canadian troops in Poland to be beefed up. "That will probably be enhanced for a longer deployment at company strength."

National Defence has said the troops would return to Canada in May after several days of military exercises.

"Unless things de-escalate, the Canadian commitment to NATO will be growing," Bezan said.

The House of Commons defence committee has also heard evidence that Canada should to ramp up its defence budget, Bezan told the gathering.

The MPs have been told by witnesses that, "we (Canada) need to at least get our spending up to 1.7 per cent."

Current defence spending stands at one per cent of GDP, a decline from 1.2 per cent during the war in Afghanistan.

He said the extra spending would be needed to meet future needs as well as to replace fighter jets, upgrades for the navy and to continue to equip the army.

NATO would like to see its 28 member countries reach the defence spending goal of two per cent of GDP.

Earlier this week, U.S. Gen. Philip Breedlove, NATO's operational commander in Europe, said only five NATO nations have achieved that goal, but the crisis in eastern Europe has prompted three other countries to promise higher military spending.

Bezan said he understands many countries are struggling with defence spending, but he noted that while it is declining in NATO countries, Russia's continues to rise.

In February, an analysis by the Conference of Defence Associations Institute concluded that years of budget-cutting had reduced the Harper government's original defence strategy by as much as $30 billion.

Dave Perry, a senior analyst at the institute, concluded that the cuts brought military spending back to 2007 levels.

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