News compilation by New Cold War.org, June 12, 2016
First Canadian troops arrive to start NATO mission in Latvia
Trudeau government expects mission to cost around $350M over next 3 years
Canada’s newest overseas military mission got underway on June 10 as the first planeload of soldiers arrived at their new home near the Latvian capital of Riga.
For their commander, Canadian Lt-Col. Wade Rutland, success at his high-profile military assignment to deter Russian aggression in the region will be relatively straightforward to measure. “It’s a funny mission success criteria, that if nothing happens, we’ll all go home happy, but that’s it,” said Rutland as he met the new arrivals on the airport tarmac.
The Canadian CC-150 Polaris touched down under a warm Baltic sun carrying 100 soldiers from an Edmonton-based mechanized brigade. They’re the first of 450 troops who will arrive over the next several days as part of a bolstered NATO force.
The battle group will be made up of troops and heavy equipment from several countries, including Italy, Spain, Albania, Poland and Slovenia, but it will be led by Canada.
Company commander Maj. John Hagemeyer was among the first off the plane carrying his kit bag. “It’s good to finally be here,” he told CBC News. “We want to be here. Latvia wants us here.”
Russia’s takeover of Crimea [sic] in 2014 and its continued support of pro-Russian separatists [sic] in Eastern Ukraine has rattled many in the tiny Baltic republic who worry they could be targeted next.
Canada offered to lead what the military terms the “enhanced forward presence” battle group in Latvia to deter any aggression.
Latvia has been hosting NATO troops ever since it was admitted to the alliance in 2004, but Canadians have always come and gone on short-term exercises. This time they’re here to stay as part of an open-ended mission with no expiry date.
The troops’ new home will be at a Soviet-era military base about 45 minutes from the capital Riga. Under the USSR, the base served as the army’s main presence in the region.
Latvia’s government is contributing $13 million to help with the refurbishments. The facility is badly rundown and the Canadians are building most of what they need from scratch.
Lt.-Col Hugo Delisle, commanding officer of the theatre opening team, has had up to 185 personnel preparing the site to get ready, which he says has gone well. “The soldiers right now have only had two days off in the last 45 days. They’re working 10 hours a day to arrive at this point, ” said Delisle as he took CBC News on a tour of the Canadian compound.
The troops will be sleeping in tent-like temporary shelters until August when new, permanent barracks are completed. Plans also call for sports facilities including a gym and track, as well as restaurants and social areas.
In a heavily protected parking lot a short distance from the living area, crews have parked several dozen nearly new LAV6 armored personnel carriers for the battle group. Other countries, such as Poland and Italy, are providing tanks.
The Canadian soldiers who arrived Saturday will likely stay until Christmas when they’ll be rotated out.
The Trudeau government expects the mission will cost 348.5 million over the next three years.
NATO is beefing up its presence in the Baltic by sending a total of 4,000 troops to other countries in the region.
That number pales in comparison to the estimated 50,000 to 70,000 troops on the other side of the border that are part of Russia’s western force.
Tactical simulations have suggested [sic] the tiny Baltic country of two million people could be completely overrun by Russian troops within two or three days.
Hagemeyer says those odds don’t bother him. “That’s not our concern,” he said. “We are fully prepared for the highest levels of threat.”
Canadian troops newly arrived in Latvia encounter skepticism
As Canadian troops in Latvia unpack and get to know their new surroundings, they’re also dealing with some skepticism from Latvians about how necessary it is to have them there.
The first wave of more than 450 Canadian military personnel has arrived in the tiny Baltic nation as part of a NATO mission to deter any potential aggression from Russia. The Canadian deployment is open-ended and could last for years.
“Our position here is entirely defensive and proportionate in response to Russian actions,” said Lt.-Col. Wade Rutland, the commander of the Canadian battle group that’s at the centre of the Latvia deployment, which also includes soldiers from six other countries.
In response to Russia’s takeover [sic] of Crimea in 2014 and an ongoing conflict with Russian-backed rebels in eastern Ukraine, NATO ordered several thousand multinational troops to Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania, as well as eastern Poland.
Latvia’s government has enthusiastically welcomed the Canadians, including giving them red and white friendship ribbons for their uniforms. However, many Latvians are doubtful that NATO’s “enhanced forward presence”, as it’s known, will alter the dynamics of the region in any significant way.
“The fear is minimal,” said Rimants Māceikis, who was shopping Sunday at Riga’s central market. “We are part of NATO and I don’t think Russia would dare hurt us.”
Nonetheless, he told CBC News, the deployment adds a measure of reassurance. Under Article Five of the NATO agreement, an attack on a member state compels other members of the military alliance to come to its aid, regardless of whether alliance troops are stationed there.
Other Latvians view the arrival of NATO battle group as unnecessarily provocative. “I don’t think it’s necessary to annoy the Russians,” said Kaspars Cabulis, who was out shopping with his wife and baby.
“They’re going to do their exercises; we’re doing our exercises. This [deployment is] not necessary. This is all normal.”
Latvia has the largest Russian speaking population of any the three Baltic countries, with over a third of the country speaking Russian. There are many close family and cultural ties between the countries, so in places there’s resistance to the idea that Russia is a country that needs to be defended against.
“I don’t think there’s any kind of threat,” said Olga Silo, a Russian speaker, who sells cucumbers at the market.
“I think Russia gave Latvia its freedom so it won’t take Latvia back now,” she explained, referring to the peaceful break-up of the former Soviet Union when Latvia regained its independence in 1991.
Canadian commanders agree the likelihood of a shooting war here is very remote, but insist their presence is part of the reason why.
“I would say that the threat of a conventional ground force invasion, I would say is not high largely because with NATO deciding at the Warsaw summit to put actual soldiers on the ground, it sends a really strong message of deterrence,” said Lt.-Col. Rutland.
Rutland says one of the key goals of the Canadian mission is to engage Latvians through things like community events, training with their troops, and working closely with the country’s government. “I guess I would say that if there are some Latvians who are not for our presence here, we are here to defend all Latvians regardless of what you think of us.”
Meanwhile, at the Canadian military compound about 45 minutes northeast of Riga, newly arrived troops continue to fight jetlag and acclimatize to their new surroundings. Most will start off sleeping in windhavens, or heavy-duty tents, until permanent dwellings are completed later in the summer.
Sgt. Anna MacAoidh, who’s originally from Winnipeg, says she’s been waiting for most of her 11 year military career to practice her telecommunication skills on an overseas assignment.
“For me this mission is important,” she told CBC News, as she set up her bed and gear. “I wanted to contribute something to Canada, and I think this mission is worthwhile and I’m really excited to be in Latvia.”