The Trudeau government is considering a request to commit hundreds of troops to eastern Europe and take part command of a new NATO force being assembled to deter Russian aggression.
Canada's participation in the Baltic operation was discussed Tuesday by the military alliance's defence ministers, including Canada's Harjit Sajjan, at a meeting in Brussels.
This comes just days after the Canadian Security Intelligence Service quietly released an open-sourced global security analysis warning, among other things, that the hard-line policies of Russian President Vladimir Putin are becoming more deeply entrenched and that Moscow is retooling its military for a fight.
The U.S., Britain and Germany publicly committed to the force on Tuesday, but federal sources said that while Canada has not yet made a decision, an answer could come soon and that Canada "supports what NATO is doing in the region."
Up to 4,000 troops are envisioned for the force, but the number coming from Canada, along with the type of equipment and vehicles that would be involved, is still being assessed.
The federal cabinet is expected to meet again on Wednesday but it is unclear whether the NATO request is on the agenda.
At the moment, just under 200 Canadian troops are involved in a massive drill — Exercise Anakonda — alongside Polish, Turkish and American forces near a base in Poland.
The Harper government committed Canada to a regular rotation of ground forces for exercises under the NATO's Operation Reassurance banner following Russia's 2014 annexation of Crimea.
But the new proposal goes a step further with the creation of four battalions, which would rotate through bases in eastern Europe and the Baltics, and be on standby for emergencies.
The contingent would be backed by NATO's highly mobile, 40,000-strong rapid reaction force.
Baltic states could be overrun
Federal sources said Tuesday that it's not been decided where Canadian troops might be based, although published reports in Europe, quoting diplomatic sources, offered up two possible locations Poland or Latvia.
The Rand Corporation, a non-partisan U.S. think-tank, released a report last winter suggesting the proposed NATO force would simply be a speed bump for the Russian army should fighting take place. It said the Baltic states — Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania — could conceivably be overrun within 60 hours unless the West was willing to station several, heavily armoured brigades in the tiny nations.
Even before the contingent is finalized, political leaders in the Baltics have privately complained it is too small, according to published reports in Europe.
The request by NATO and the U.S. to fill one of the four slots took some in Ottawa by surprise, where the notion wasn't on the radar as little as two months ago, said one source with knowledge of the file.
It is expected the government will signal its intentions before Prime Minister Justin Trudeau goes to the NATO leaders summit in Warsaw next month.
The potential commitment is unfolding against the backdrop of an increasingly unpredictable Russian regime, said a security analysis released last week by the Canada's spy agency.
Russia 'mobilizing for war'
The report is a distillation of open source academic research and evaluations and not based on internal CSIS assessments.
It does however use stark language, and warned decision-makers not to treat Putin's rearmament drive lightly.
"Russia is not modernizing its military primarily to extend its capacity to pursue hybrid warfare," the 104 page report said, referring to the Kremlin's use of irregular tactics to take over Crimea. "It is modernizing conventional military capability on a large scale; the state is mobilizing for war."
The West has primarily responded to the annexation and Moscow's support of separatists in eastern Ukraine with economic sanctions.
The prevailing wisdom is that fiscal pain will bring Putin around, but the report dismissed that notion, saying two years after war erupted in Ukraine, the Kremlin "appears to be coherent, durable and united" at the centre.
"Western assessments that Russia is vulnerable to economic collapse and disruptive internal discontent are exaggerated," said the assessment, titled 2018 Security Outlook.
"Russia is adapting to adversity; the economy is deliberately tilted to security rather than economic freedom."