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Canada pledges Ukraine aid, plan to buy submarines as NATO spending questions dog PM

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Prime Minister Justin Trudeau talks with U.S. President Joe Biden at the G7 Summit in Savelletri Di Fasano, Italy on Thursday, June 13, 2024. Trudeau is heading to a dinner at the White House this evening, as the U.S. president hosts NATO leaders.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

WASHINGTON, D. C. — Prime Minister Justin Trudeau pledged another $500 million in military assistance to Ukraine in a one-on-one conversation with President Volodymyr Zelenskyy at the NATO summit in Washington, D.C.

The funding announcement Wednesday comes amidst pressure from American politicians who are publicly critical of Canada for falling short of its defence spending commitments.

A senior government official said Canada would provide a timeline to reach the funding goal and more information on its plan Thursday.

NATO allies have agreed to spend at least the equivalent of two per cent of their national gross domestic product on defence. Canada's current spend is around 1.37 per cent.

Trudeau tried to get ahead of the criticism during a speech Tuesday in which he said the Liberal government has been following through on promises to drastically increase defence spending since it came into power.

Since 2014, Canada's defence budget has grown by more than 57 per cent, and it is estimated at $29.9 billion for this year.

The only NATO countries that spend more in terms of real dollars are the U.S., United Kingdom, France, Germany, Italy, Poland and Turkey.

But 23 of the 32 allies are expected to meet the two per cent target this year, and Canada is the only one that hasn't presented a plan to get to that minimum.

Fen Hampson, a professor of international affairs at Carleton University in Ottawa, said the plan should have been shared earlier, "so our partners know we are serious."

"We are clearly in the bull's-eye of American politicians and the narrative is we are the weak northern link in NATO."

In May, 23 U.S. senators wrote Trudeau a letter urging him to come to the summit with a clear plan.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell pointed to Canada's spending failures following a meeting with Trudeau on Tuesday, and Mike Johnson, the Republican Speaker of the House of Representatives, was also critical during a talk at the Hudson Institute in Washington the same day.

"Talk about riding on America's coattails," Johnson said. "They have the safety and security of being on our border and not having to worry about that. Talk about shameful."

Defence Minister Bill Blair suggested earlier this week in Washington that he was bringing to the summit the kind of plan allies have been asking for.

The Canadian government pushed back on concerns by announcing an incremental move toward replacing its fleet of submarines Wednesday.

Blair said Canada will buy up to 12 conventionally powered, under-ice capable submarines — something the government pledged to do in its new defence policy in April.

The announcement did not include a cost estimate that would clarify for allies or Canadians how much the project will help in closing the two per cent gap.

Blair also signed a letter of intent regarding the establishment of a trilateral maritime security partnership with Germany and Norway on the sidelines of the summit.

During the three-day summit, Trudeau has talked with counterparts about economic opportunities and partnerships, as well as staying resolute in support for Ukraine.

Trudeau also told Zelenskyy that Canada will begin to provide much of Ukraine's fighter jet pilot training.

The prime minister later joined other NATO leaders for a dinner hosted by U.S. President Joe Biden at the White House.

Concerns over Biden's health and the possibility of a second Donald Trump presidency have already cast a shadow over the summit.

Trudeau wouldn't respond Tuesday when a reporter asked him if he had concerns about the 81-year-old's age or mental acuity.

But Polish President Andrzej Duda brushed aside questions about the American president on Wednesday, saying he met with Biden "and there is no doubt that everything is OK."

"We don't need to interfere in the American election," Duda said at the summit.

The U.S. president has been under international scrutiny after a disastrous debate performance last month against Trump.

Biden delivered a clear and forceful speech at NATO's 75th anniversary celebration Tuesday evening at a critical time for the Democratic leader and for stability in his party.

The president made a brief statement, looking down at times as he referenced his remarks, as the demands of the summit continued Wednesday.

Biden's team has said the president is sharpest earlier in the day and tries to avoid events after 8 p.m. That's the time Wednesday's dinner with the NATO leaders began.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 10, 2024.

— With files from Sarah Ritchie in Ottawa.

Kelly Geraldine Malone, The Canadian Press