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Policy

Canadian presence in Latvia lauded as risks noted

By Denis Calnan      

'The problem that NATO has is what if Russia does go into the Baltic states, what do we do?' asks Carleton University's Elinor Sloan.

Conservative Defence critic James Bezan said 'it is shameful that it took repeated pressure from NATO and the United States for the Liberals to finally cave and agree to lead a battalion.' The Hill Times photograph by Jake Wright
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Defence experts are lauding Canada’s participation in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s efforts in the Baltic states, and while the presence in Latvia could amount to a “tripwire” for Russia to stay out of the region, some say there is an opportunity for it to be more than that.

Canada’s military is currently preparing to deploy 450 troops to Latvia, a member of NATO, and will lead the mission in that country as part of NATOs efforts in the region to deter Russian aggression.

Jean-Christophe Boucher, an assistant professor in political science at MacEwan University, said one of Canada’s main functions in the region is to be a “tripwire” for Russian troops.

“In essence, as we deploy troops we put them in harm’s way so that if ever Russians are trying to deploy [troops] in Latvia, they’re going to end up … being stuck with NATO troops and Canadians, which will increase the danger of trying to do anything funny or Ukraine-like in Eastern Europe,” he said, referring to Russia’s annexation of Crimea.

“Yeah, I think that’s an accurate assessment,” said Elinor Sloan, a professor of international relations at Carleton University, about the description of Canada’s role as a “tripwire.”

“The problem that NATO has is what if Russia does go into the Baltic states, what do we do?” said Prof. Sloan, noting that several member countries do not favour invoking Article 5 of the treaty, which is the principle of “collective defence.”

The article states that “an attack against one Ally is considered as an attack against all Allies,” according to NATO’s website.

“And so NATO would be faced with the choice of doing nothing or having to actually mount a military operation against Russia. And so those are two very stark choices,” said Prof. Sloan.

She said the organization’s strategy of trying to pose as a deterrent in the region is a good choice.

Stéfanie von Hlatky, the director of the Centre for International and Defence Policy and a professor at Queen’s University, said there is real opportunity for Canada to be much more than a “tripwire force” in Latvia.

“You can also think of the Canadian presence as an opportunity not only to contribute to NATO but also to contribute to Canadian defence diplomacy in a way,” she said.

“The Canadian Armed Forces will be able to interact with a host of other NATO countries and partners in the context of these activities. We’ll be able to take part in more military exercises in the region and can be a visible representation of Canada in that region. And so have a positive impact by their very presence. And so I think we need to think about that presence more broadly, not just as a tripwire force,” said von Hlatky.

She says troops will be wondering how exactly their roles will play out.

“I think there’s probably a lot of questions on the part of the Canadian Armed Forces with regards to what they’re going to be asked to do once they are deployed to Latvia,” said Prof. von Hlatky.

“Because I think that a lot of people have the operational experience of Afghanistan and that’s what they know. And so how will that training and that operational experience translate to the Latvian context,” she said.

One thing that is certain is that Canada’s commitment is for the long term.

“Canada is leading in a key spot at a key time. And I think that’s what the allies were looking for,” said Stephen Saideman, the Patterson Chair in International Affairs at Carleton University.

“I think we’re stuck there for the long term, so I think we should expect … continuity,” said Prof. Saideman, noting he does not expect there to be much growth in Canada’s troops there.

Prof. Sloan says she thinks NATOs presence in the region could grow over time.

“There could be a mini-Cold War,” she said.

Prof. Saideman says Latvia is a key part of the NATO mission and therefore Canada has a significant role to carry-out.

“It’s a country with a significant Russian population. It is one that has only been away from Russia/Soviet Union since 1991. It’s a spot that [Russian President Vladimir] Putin has made threats towards and is quite vulnerable, so of the places that could be [a target for] the Russians, this is pretty much the top of the list,” said Prof. Saideman.

Conservative Defence critics James Bezan (Selkirk-Interlake-Eastman, Manitoba) said in an email that “it is shameful that it took repeated pressure from NATO and the United States for the Liberals to finally cave and agree to lead a battalion.”

He said: “Prime Minister [Justin] Trudeau refused to take any action until President [Barack] Obama directly requested Canada’s support in our own House of Commons.”

In June, Obama addressed the Canadian Parliament.

“As your ally and as your friend, let me say that we’ll be more secure when every NATO member, including Canada, contributes its full share to our common security,” he said then.

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