Russian military war games, or Zapad (the Russian code name), have always stirred unease in Latvia, one of NATO’s easternmost members. This unease is greater now, with the United States shrugging off its mantle of global leadership and Donald Trump expressing ambivalence over the NATO alliance’s bedrock article 5. But there is one consolation for Latvia: it won’t be witnessing Moscow’s manoeuvres and displays of power alone – Canada will be standing by.
Canada was the first of the major Western countries to recognize the restoration of Latvia’s independence back in 1991, and one of the first to ratify its membership in NATO in 2004. The transatlantic connection has always been friendly, albeit a bit sleepy. This year, however, the relationship has been extraordinarily intense. On ice, the Latvian national hockey team is being led by former Calgary Flames coach Bob Hartley. On matters of trade, Latvia was the first nation from the EU to sign the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement with Canada. Most importantly, despite vociferous objections from the Kremlin, Canadians are leading a multinational on-land battle group, as part of NATO’s Enhanced Forward Presence.
The decision to form this group, which consists of six nations, was reached at NATO’s Warsaw summit in 2016. It was taken in reaction to Russia’s destructive presence in eastern Ukraine. Canada’s Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan explained Ottawa’s strategic mindset regarding troop deployment on NATO’s Eastern front: “We have gone from assurance and now to deterrence,” he said. In addition to 450 Canadian troops, the battalion includes military personnel from Albania, Italy, Poland, Slovenia, and Spain. But is this 1,000 plus-soldier force really going to be a game changer in deterring Russian aggression?
Some analysts have criticized the contribution, saying that Canadian forces are too “thin” to be able to deter a conventional invasion by Russia. The forces “lack artillery rockets and heavy mortars, have small numbers of long-range howitzers, and have precious little air-defence capability,” all of which Russia has been effectively utilizing in the conflict in Ukraine. A widely circulated RAND Corp. study also raised red flags: in order to successfully defend against Russian invasion, Baltic countries need at least seven brigades, it commented. Otherwise, the report suggested, Russian forces could be at the doorstep of Baltic capitals Tallinn or Riga within 36 to 60 hours after the start of hostilities.
But just because the Canadian presence will be badly outnumbered does not mean that the deployment will not have any deterrent value. While modest in size, the strength of the battalion lies in its multinational composition.
The Canadian forward presence comes nowhere near what is needed in order to counter a full-blown Russian attack. During Zapad military drills this week, Moscow is expected to include a staggering 100,000 troops. But just because the Canadian presence will be badly outnumbered does not mean that the deployment will not have any deterrent value. While modest in size, the strength of the battalion lies in its multinational composition. Any possible Russian incursion in Latvia would likely result in casualties from the contributing nations, which would then likely draw those nations into the conflict. The fact that the risk is spread across different NATO countries means that any misbehaviour by Russia might bear a heavy cost. As such, even a relatively light force will make the deployment worthwhile.
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Quite apart from the concern over the possibility of a Ukraine-scenario takeover in Latvia, there are also acute concerns regarding a different type of warfare – the one that runs through Internet wires and Russian-government-controlled news channels. Moscow has proven to be a quick learner when it comes to other societies’ vulnerabilities and pressure points, and it has taken risks to exploit them. After witnessing the effectiveness of Russian election meddling and propaganda diffusion in the US and across Western Europe, the Canadian-led mission is bracing to counter false news headlines regarding the military deployment. A recent study by Latvian-based NATO Strategic Communications, for example, found that nearly 70 percent of all Russian language twitter accounts posting about NATO missions in the Baltic countries were not held by real people but by “bots.” Canada should be prepared to experience heavy propaganda rain. Already some Russian language channels have taken aim at the mission by mocking Canada’s Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan for wearing a turban and labelling the mission “the gay division.”
For now, however, Canada is winning the hearts and minds of the local population. The mission has been warmly welcomed at both the political elite and societal level. A poll commissioned by the Latvian Ministry of Defence revealed that only 17 percent of residents opposed the presence of the battalion; 43 percent approved of it and 30 percent were neutral on the issue. At a time when America is looking to withdraw from the global stage, Canada’s interest in strengthening traditional alliances is greatly appreciated. Ottawa is making a profound impact at this time when the international situation far beyond its own borders is so volatile. Canada’s presence in Latvia matters a great deal.
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