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Members of Canadian army during Crystal Arrow 2022 exercise on March 7, 2022 in Adazi, Latvia.Paulius Peleckis/Getty Images

The Deputy Prime Minister of Latvia says he would like to see Canada take on an additional NATO leadership role in his country’s capital.

Artis Pabriks, who is also Latvia’s Defence Minister, was in Ottawa Wednesday for meetings with Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland and Defence Minister Anita Anand as allies map out their response to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s military assault on Ukraine.

Latvia is already the site of Canada’s biggest military deployment right now: By the end of March, Canada will have nearly 700 troops near the country’s capital, Riga, as part of a five-year-old NATO effort to deter Russian aggression. Canada leads a multinational NATO battle group there.

Mr. Pabriks said he’s pitched Canada on taking on a second role: joining the command of NATO’s Multinational Division North, which is charged with planning and preparation in the event of war. Based in Riga, it co-ordinates allied land forces deployed in Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania and prepares for collective defence. A Danish major-general commands the headquarters.

“We need Canadian support to build up the northern division headquarters and presence,” the Latvian minister said in an interview.

“We would like that Canadians join. We trust Canadians,” he said, adding that, ideally, Canada’s military would take on a co-leadership role. He said this commitment would require posting a Canadian general in Riga.

The Globe and Mail asked Ms. Anand’s office whether Canada would take on this role. Spokesperson Daniel Minden said: “Canada will be contributing to the Multinational Division North and is currently considering what that contribution would look like.”

The three Baltic states, which were Soviet republics as recently as 30 years ago, fear they may be Mr. Putin’s next target if Ukraine falls to Russian forces. Their only land connection to the European Union and NATO is a strip of territory known as the Suwalki Gap, where Lithuania meets Poland. This corridor is also the shortest point between Belarus, a close ally of Russia, and the Russian port of Kaliningrad, a separate piece of Moscow’s territory on the Baltic Sea.

The gap is a major concern for NATO. If Russia were to take it, the Baltics’ land connection with mainland Europe would be severed. If that were to happen, Baltic leaders worry, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia would be cut off like West Berlin, the Cold War-era Western enclave within East Germany.

NATO’s most exposed members

The Suwalki Gap that separates the Russian exclave of Kalinin-

grad from Kremlin-aligned Belarus is the only land link from

Central Europe to the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia

and Lithuania

NATO members

(includes Canada, U.S.)

NATO Enhanced

Opportunities Partners*

0

500

SWED.

NOR.

FIN.

KM

RUSSIA

Kadetrinne:

Strategic sea

route to Baltic

states

ESTONIA

Riga

LATVIA

Suwalki Gap: 65km-

wide corridor is choke-

point should Russia

attempt to cut off

Baltic states

Baltic

Sea

LITHUANIA

BELARUS

KALININGRAD

DEN.

POLAND

UKRAINE

GER.

SLOVAK.

CZECH

REP.

GEORGIA

HUNGARY

Black Sea

ROMANIA

Crimea:

Annexed

by Russia

SLOV.

CRO.

BULG.

TURKEY

ITALY

*Closest form of cooperation with NATO.

Georgia, Ukraine join in Sept. 2014

graphic news, Sources: Bloomberg, NATO, Reuters

NATO’s most exposed members

The Suwalki Gap that separates the Russian exclave of Kalinin-

grad from Kremlin-aligned Belarus is the only land link from

Central Europe to the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia

and Lithuania

NATO members

(includes Canada, U.S.)

NATO Enhanced

Opportunities Partners*

0

500

SWED.

NOR.

FIN.

KM

RUSSIA

Kadetrinne:

Strategic sea

route to Baltic

states

ESTONIA

Riga

LATVIA

Suwalki Gap: 65km-

wide corridor is choke-

point should Russia

attempt to cut off

Baltic states

Baltic

Sea

LITHUANIA

BELARUS

KALININGRAD

DEN.

POLAND

UKRAINE

GER.

SLOVAK.

CZECH

REP.

GEORGIA

HUNGARY

Black Sea

ROMANIA

Crimea:

Annexed

by Russia

SLOV.

CRO.

BULG.

TURKEY

ITALY

*Closest form of cooperation with NATO.

Georgia, Ukraine join in Sept. 2014

graphic news, Sources: Bloomberg, NATO, Reuters

NATO’s most exposed members

The Suwalki Gap that separates the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad from Kremlin-aligned Belarus

is the only land link from Central Europe to the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania

NATO members

(includes Canada, U.S.)

NATO Enhanced

Opportunities Partners*

SWED.

NOR.

FIN.

RUSSIA

Kadetrinne:

Strategic sea

route to Baltic

states

ESTONIA

LATVIA

Riga

Suwalki Gap: 65km-wide

corridor is chokepoint

should Russia attempt to

cut off Baltic states

Baltic

Sea

LITHUANIA

BELARUS

KALININGRAD

DENMARK

POLAND

UKRAINE

SLOVAKIA

GERMANY

CZECH

REP.

GEORGIA

HUNGARY

Black Sea

Crimea:

Annexed

by Russia

ROMANIA

SLOVENIA

0

500

CROATIA

BULGARIA

TURKEY

KM

ITALY

*Closest form of cooperation with NATO. Georgia, Ukraine join in Sept. 2014

graphic news, Sources: Bloomberg, NATO, Reuters

Like his Baltic counterparts, Mr. Pabriks is seeking allied help in beefing up air defences. He said the revised military strategy in his country is to deny Russian forces a chance to seize territory – ground he fears they might not relinquish. “We must immediately stop them at the border,” he said.

Mr. Pabriks said he expects a meeting of NATO leaders in Brussels this week and a June summit in Madrid will result in a decision by June to transform a massive defence buildup in the Baltics and Eastern Europe into a more permanent presence to hold Russia at bay. Several years ago, NATO member countries deployed about 5,000 troops, plus equipment, to NATO’s eastern flank after Moscow annexed Crimea. In recent months, this force has been doubled.

He expressed hope that one day NATO might become a global organization that includes Pacific Rim countries.

The Latvian minister said decisions will be made at the NATO Madrid summit and will have implications for future military spending. Canada currently falls far short of a NATO commitment to spend 2 per cent of its annual economic output (gross domestic product) on defence. Ottawa devotes only about 1.4 per cent of GDP to military expenditures.

Asked about Canada’s defence spending record, Mr. Pabriks said he would not want to criticize Ottawa because his country is extremely grateful for Canadian battle group leadership in Latvia. “On the other hand, if you are a NATO member, we should be ready to spend more.” Latvia has hiked defence spending to 2.5 per cent of GDP.

He said larger military budgets are needed because of Mr. Putin’s actions. “Our assessment of Russia was wrong,” he said of expectations that Mr. Putin would not launch an unprovoked war on a European country. “The consequences of our misjudgment was that our budgets were not fit.”

The Latvian lawmaker said he would like Western leaders to follow the example of Eastern European prime ministers and show solidarity with Ukraine by travelling to Kyiv, currently under siege by Russian forces, to meet with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. The prime ministers of Poland, the Czech Republic and Slovenia made a hazardous journey by train to meet Mr. Zelensky in Kyiv on March 15.

“If the Prime Minister of Poland can do it, why shouldn’t others be there,” Mr. Pabriks said.

The Latvian leader said all the sanctions Western countries have slapped on Russian politicians, oligarchs and businesses are not enough. “The job is only half done,” he said.

The West should go after extended family holdings of wealthy Russians close to Mr. Putin, Mr. Pabriks said. These elites support the war while they or their families live in Western countries.

He urged Western leaders to press any companies still doing business with Russia to exit completely, and to set a timetable to end European reliance on Russian energy.

“We have to de-Putinize the West,” he said. “We cannot approach this aggressive authoritarian regime in Russia with soft gloves.”

Latvia's Defense Minister Artis Pabriks arrives to attend the talks between Prime Minister of Canada Justin Trudeau and Prime Minister of Latvia Krisjanis Karins in Riga, Latvia, March. 8, 2022.ROMAN KOKSAROV/The Associated Press

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