France is suspending delivery of the first of two naval assault warships it had arranged to sell to Russia on the eve of a NATO summit where members of the military alliance are under pressure to demonstrate serious efforts to respond to Moscow's aggression in Ukraine.
French President François Hollande, who until now has resisted calls to rethink the sale, cited Russia's aggression in Ukraine as the reason for the suspension, saying it runs contrary to Europe's security.
The North Atlantic Treaty Organization summit, which begins Thursday near Cardiff, Wales, will see leaders try to bridge divides on how to deal with Russia's re-emergence as a bellicose rival and how to beef up the alliance's ability to respond to crises that threaten members in places such as Eastern Europe.
Several proposals for collective action have run into obstacles or remain in the conceptual stages as the summit begins.
The drive by the United States and Britain to boost all NATO members' defence spending to 2 per cent of annual economic output – only a handful meet or exceed this level – has been watered down, according to Canada, which opposes a proposed alliance commitment to a hard figure.
Calls from Poland and the Baltic states to permanently station NATO troops in new bases along the alliance's eastern flank – as a deterrent to further moves by Moscow – have been opposed by allies such as Germany, which fear such a move could provoke Russia.
One measure expected to win approval is a "spearhead" rapid reaction force, a speedier version of what NATO has now, that could deploy a force of up to 3,000 to 5,000 to hot spots on short notice.
While Anders Fogh Rasmussen, the secretary-general of NATO, talked confidently this week of a plan to create a "spearhead" force using allied troops and equipment, sources familiar with the talks caution the proposal is still a concept and requires significant fleshing-out before it could come into being.
U.S. President Barack Obama, in remarks Wednesday in the Baltic state of Estonia, which borders Russia, framed the conflict in Ukraine as a "moment of testing" for NATO. He lauded Estonia for spending 2 per cent of its GDP on defence and called on all NATO countries to follow suit.
"This week's summit is the moment for every NATO nation to step up and commit to meeting its responsibilities to our alliance. Estonia does it; every ally must do it," Mr. Obama said.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper said Canada has shouldered more than its fair share of NATO duties and needn't apologize for refusing to commit to increasing defence spending to 2 per cent of annual economic output. Ottawa announced this week that allies have agreed to soften the wording so it says countries will try to raise their respective defence spending rather than commit to this firm target – a goal sought by Washington and London as they try to increase the alliance's capacity to respond to threats.
Mr. Harper, speaking to a business crowd in London where he was promoting trade between Canada and Britain, said Canadians have made major contributions to NATO despite spending only 1 per cent of this country's gross domestic product on defence.
"We can argue about spending but the reality is this: Everything NATO has done in recent years – whether it was a mission to Afghanistan, the mission to Libya, and now the reassurance mission to Eastern Europe – Canada has not only contributed everything we've been asked … but we've contributed disproportionally," Mr. Harper said.
Separately, soldiers from Canada and other NATO countries will take part in joint exercises with the Ukrainian army that are likely to further fuel suspicions between Moscow and the West.
A total of 1,300 soldiers will take part in the 10-day drills, which begin Sept. 16 at the Yavoriv training centre, near the western Ukrainian city of Lviv. The Pentagon said the United States will contribute 200 soldiers to the exercise, which is code-named Rapid Trident. It wasn't clear Wednesday how many Canadian troops would take part.
Fen Hampson, director of the Global Security and Politics program at the Centre for International Governance Innovation in Waterloo, Ont., said he fears the summit will do little for Ukraine. "I think the Ukrainians have a great deal to worry about and this is not at all reassuring to NATO's front line states, particularly the Baltics. It points to a lack of leadership and resolve in the alliance, not just from the U.S. but also the Germans. For Canada, as for others, the deeds do not match the rhetoric."
Mr. Harper, who normally styles himself a military hawk, cannot accommodate an increase in defence spending right now because he's anticipating using budget surpluses in the near future to give Canadians tax breaks ahead of an expected 2015 election.
On Wednesday, Mr. Harper framed his resistance to the NATO spending pledge as typically conservative. "As a Conservative government, we have same philosophy on defence budgeting as on any other budgeting, which is we don't go out and specify a dollar figure and then figure out how to spend it. We go out and figure out what it is we need to do, and then we attempt to get a budget as frugally as possible to achieve those objectives," he said.
"We will only be spending where there is need and where there is clearly a will on the part of NATO and other allies to act."
With reports from Mark MacKinnon in Newport, Wales, Reuters and Bloomberg