The only incursion Canadian soldiers deployed to NATO’s eastern flank are likely to encounter these days is a trespassing mushroom hunter foraging on lands reserved for live-fire exercises.
But Colonel Jean-François Cauden, commander of Canada’s Task Force Latvia, has to be prepared for threats to escalate quickly.
The Canadians lead a multinational battle group located on the outskirts of the Latvian capital of Riga. It’s part of a broader North Atlantic Treaty Organization effort begun in 2017 as a check on further Russian aggression after Moscow annexed Crimea.
If trouble ever starts for the Canadians in Latvia, it’s likely to come from Russia’s heavily armed Western Military District – only 300 kilometres away.
By this summer, Canada will have led this Latvian deployment for five years and more than 5,000 Canadian soldiers will have rotated through Camp Adazi, the home of the NATO battle group.
Latvia’s public broadcaster, LSM, last fall documented the difficulties military police were having keeping mushroom hunters out of the forests, meadows and bogs around Camp Adazi, the largest military training range in the Baltics.
This year, however, the region is even more on edge as the Ukraine crisis renews fears that Russian President Vladimir Putin may one day have designs on the Baltics, which only broke away from Moscow’s rule 30 years ago. “We are the front trenches. We are on the front line,” Col. Cauden said in an interview.
In a conflict, he noted, nobody would be fighting alone in Latvia. There are 10 NATO member countries training at Camp Adazi. And the rest of the alliance behind them. “An attack on one is an attack on all,” he says, referring to the mutual defence pact at the heart of NATO.
In the midst of this are the Latvians. Officials and academics in Latvia say the military support from alliance members over the past half-decade in their country has fundamentally altered their idea of what it means to belong to NATO.
“That was very important,” Janis Garisons, the state secretary of Latvia’s Ministry of Defence, said of the alliance’s decision to station four battle groups on its eastern front for as long as it has. “NATO came through for us.”
Before Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea, Andris Spruds, the director of the Latvian Institute of International Affairs, said he had feared that the tiny Baltics were “basically second-class members of NATO” and the Western alliance might find reasons not to deliver on a mutual defence commitment.
“For Latvians, a small nation, the worry of being left alone is a nightmare.” It was a nagging insecurity: Were the Baltics still pawns in a greater geopolitical game or would NATO meet its obligations at the risk of provoking Russia.
“There was always this perception that regardless of development … we would never get those troops,” Mr. Spruds said.
The past five years has put that fear to rest.
Today, four multinational battalion-size battlegroups remain in Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland as part of NATO’s “Enhanced Forward Presence.” Air and sea patrols have been added, too.
Last week, NATO said it was putting forces on standby and reinforcing Eastern Europe with more ships and fighter jets.
A major concern for Baltic states right now is a buildup of Russian troops in Belarus, an extremely close ally of Moscow that borders Latvia, Lithuania and Poland. The BBC reported last week that an estimated 30,000 Russian soldiers are in Belarus for what Minsk and Moscow say are military exercises.
Belarus, which is increasingly considered to be under Russia’s control, offers Moscow a rapid staging ground from which to move on the Baltics or seize a land corridor to join Belarusian territory with Kaliningrad on the Baltic Sea. The strip of land in question is called the Suwalki Corridor or Suwalki Gap.
Col. Cauden acknowledges the worry over Belarus. It’s “concerning if you have that type of buildup in your backyard,” he said.
Again, however, he cited NATO’s collective-defence commitment.
Baltic states are saying now that the rising tension in Ukraine is evidence NATO needs to keep its augmented eastern-flank defences in place. Canada’s pledge to lead the battle group in Latvia extends until March, 2023.
The Task Force Latvia commander can’t speak for elected officials in Ottawa on what decision they might make regarding whether to extend the deployment.
But he notes that Canada spent $18.5-million on a new headquarters for Task Force Latvia in Riga. The building just opened last June.
Canada isn’t planning on a permanent presence in Latvia but Col. Cauden said he believes “we’re here for the long run – we’re fully committed to it.”
With a report from Reuters
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