In Europe - East, Feature Articles

By David J. Climenhaga, published on his website Alberta Diary, Aug 19, 2016

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau at NATO summit in Poland in July 2016 (photo by office of the PM of Canada)

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau at NATO summit in Poland in July 2016 (photo by office of the PM of Canada)

If there’s no Russian threat to the Baltics, what is it that our Canadian soldiers are doing there again?

Back on June 20, General Petr Pavel let it slip publicly what everyone in the know already knew, and that is that the Russians pose no threat to the three Baltic Republics, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia. He should know. After all, in addition to being until last year the Chief of Staff of the Czech Army, he’s now chair of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s Military Committee, which makes him theoretically the top soldier in NATO.

Czech General Petr Pavel, Chairman of the Military Committee of NATO in 2016

Czech General Petr Pavel, Chairman of the Military Committee of NATO in 2016

“It is not the aim of NATO to create a military barrier against broad-scale Russian aggression, because such aggression is not on the agenda and no intelligence assessment suggests such a thing,” Gen. Pavel told a news conference in Brussels with remarkable candour for a top-level military bureaucrat. (Emphasis added.) Now, that’s a pretty categorical statement from a guy who, ex officio, really ought to know what he’s talking about.

Just the same, less than three weeks later, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced what his press release called “Canada’s largest sustained military presence in Europe in more than a decade” — leading a “NATO battle group” in Latvia as part of “the Alliance’s enhanced Forward Presence in Eastern Europe.” (The eccentric capitalization, by the way, comes straight out of the news release.)

One could argue this battle group would be better described as a provocation group, considering what they face right across the border in Russia, which may not covet the Baltic Republics but nevertheless most certainly intends to defend its own national sovereignty, as any country in the same situation would.

Indeed, many of the activities Canada will be participating in — when actually examined as practiced on the ground, on the water and in the air — have the quality of provocations, notwithstanding the soothing language of Trudeau’s July 8 press release, issued during NATO’s summit in Poland.

“Additionally, the Canadian Armed Forces will deploy a frigate that will undertake operational tasks with NATO’s maritime forces in the region,” it said. “Canada will also deploy an Air Task Force — which will include up to six CF-18 fighter aircraft — to conduct periodic surveillance and air policing activities in Europe.”

Alert readers will note that when Russian warplanes fly in the direction of Canada, this is seldom described by Canadian politicians or media as “periodic surveillance and air policing activities.” They may be less aware, because this part was barely reported, that a U.S. guided missile ship carrying 2,500-kilometre range missiles was within 70 kilometres of a Russian naval base last spring when it was aggressively intercepted by Russian aircraft. Yet it was the response that prompted a media brouhaha.

The PM’s release went on: “The land, maritime and air initiatives … form Canada’s renewed mandate under Operation REASSURANCE and demonstrate Canada’s unwavering commitment to NATO, to the protection of Alliance territories, and to the ultimate goal of protecting the safety and security of our citizens.”

As has been said here before, it’s not really clear how poking at the Russians right on their doorstep – when even NATO’s commanders admit Russia has no plans or inclination to do anything aggressive in the Baltic Republics — protects the safety and security of Canadians.

Indeed, there is a strong argument to be made — notwithstanding the belligerent jingoism of the Canadian mainstream media, especially the faltering Postmedia chain — that this kind of thing does precisely the opposite.

Czech General Petr Pavel, Chairman of the Military Committee of NATO in 2016

Czech General Petr Pavel, Chairman of the Military Committee of NATO in 2016

Remember, there is a big difference between Russia and many of the countries of the world that have come up against the might of Washington and NATO proxies like Canada. The Russians have the means to credibly defend themselves, and their supply lines are very short while our soldiers are thousands of miles from home, patrolling a few hundred yards from the Russians’ border.

Our best hope in such circumstances, it would seem, is that the Canadian-led NATO battle group right on Russia’s border is there as a nuclear trip wire in the event of a Russian attack, acknowledged by NATO’s leaders to be highly unlikely. They certainly could not stop an all-out Russian attack, if it came, a fact the U.S. Army commander in Europe admitted in June. Lieutenant-General Frederick “Ben” Hodges said it would take the Russians less than 36 hours to overwhelm the Baltics if they chose to do so. Surely this can’t be very comforting to the Canadians stationed there.

Are we really comfortable putting our country’s fate in the hands of a 67-year-old military alliance that’s desperately looking for a new raison d’etre in a much-changed world, and is apparently willing to roll the nuclear dice to find it?

We certainly know what the Americans would do in the same circumstances as the Russians now find themselves, because they did it in 1962. Arguably, the Russians are showing considerable restraint in comparison.

As noted in the last post on this topic, this has the potential to be a particular problem when, given the rapprochement between Russia and Turkey and the resulting diplomatic gains made by the Russian government on its southern flank, there is a real possibility NATO’s senior soldiers and diplomats will get up to mischief in the north.

If we’re only doing this, as some observers have cynically suggested, to justify the purchase of American designed and built weapons under NATO’s notorious requirement that member nations spend two per cent of their GDPs on armaments — a policy that emphasizes only expenditures and neither efficiency nor strategy — we might want to consider dialling it down. Looking out for the only remaining healthy industrial sector in the U.S. economy doesn’t really seem like a very fair reason to risk nuclear annihilation.

Still, NATO has a new $2 billion headquarters building in Brussels to which we have all contributed, yet another strangely underreported story, so I suppose it’s too much to ask that it go the way of the Warsaw Pact, its Soviet era counterpart created six years after NATO and disbanded a quarter century ago in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union.

At the very least, one would think, Canada should be using its leverage in NATO to get the alliance to act with restraint — including when it comes to recruiting new members on Russia’s borders and recognizing any great power has interests in its region — thereby making the world a safer place, instead of a more dangerous one.

Instead, the latest thing we’ve heard is that Canada will be playing a bigger role in these activities while Europe’s nations focus on the real security threats they face, including the refugee crisis spawned in part by NATO’s last round of adventures in North Africa and the Middle East.

This is not very reassuring — especially for those Canadians who supported Trudeau’s Liberals in hopes of seeing a change in more than tone and image after the dark, jingoistic days of the Harper Government.

This article also appears on David Climenhaga’s blog on David Climenhaga worked in senior writing and editing positions with the Toronto Globe and Mail and the Calgary Herald. His 1995 book, ‘A Poke in the Public Eye’, explores the relationships among Canadian journalists, public relations people and politicians. He left journalism to work for the trade union movement after the nine-month strike at the Calgary Herald which ended in July 2000.


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