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Canada in talks with NATO allies about boosting military forces in Latvia

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau takes part in a joint press conference with Latvian Prime Minister Krisjanis Karins on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Thursday, May 12, 2022. Ottawa is talking with allies about boosting a Canadian-led combat unit in Latvia as the NATO military alliance moves to reinforce its eastern front with Russia.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

Ottawa is talking with allies about reinforcing a Canadian-led combat unit in Latvia as the NATO military alliance moves to reinforce its eastern front with Russia.

Latvia's ambassador to Canada revealed the discussions in an interview with The Canadian Press as Prime Minister Justin Trudeau prepares to attend a NATO summit later this week where Russia and its invasion of Ukraine will be top of mind.

The aim is to add more troops and capabilities to the 2,000-strong battlegroup that Canada has been leading in Latvia since 2017, which will serve as a deterrent to further Russian aggression in the region, said Ambassador Kaspars Ozolins.

“We are trying to respond to the current security environment,” Ozolins said. “It's important that we beef up the security and forward defence and deterrence of the eastern flank. And it should be at the (same) level as all NATO countries.”

The Canadian-led battlegroup in Latvia is one of four established by NATO in 2017, with Germany leading another such unit in Lithuania and Britain and the United States responsible for forces in Estonia and Poland, respectively.

Following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February, NATO members agreed to create four more battlegroups in Bulgaria, Hungary, Romania and Slovakia, effectively extending the alliance’s eastern front from the Baltic Sea to the Black Sea.

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg on Monday confirmed the eight battlegroups will be increased to brigade-level forces, which entails doubling the number of troops to between 3,000 and 5,000.

Increasing the battlegroups to brigades will also entail adding more equipment, including dedicated air defence and electronic warfare units as well as better command and control capabilities, and the stockpiling of more ammunition and other supplies.

“With more forward-deployed equipment, including lots more forward-deployed combat formations, and more exercises, we will significantly increase our ability to defend and protect all allies also in the eastern part of the alliance,” Stoltenberg said.

The alliance is also dramatically increasing the number of forces on high readiness from 40,000 to 300,000, Stoltenberg said, so they can be deployed quickly in the event of war.

Yet while Germany and Britain have both said in recent weeks that they are ready to lead larger combat units in Lithuania and Estonia, Canada has so far remained silent about its plans in Latvia.

Trudeau in March announced Canada will continue leading the Latvian-based battlegroup until March 2025, which Ozolins described as a necessary first step toward strengthening the force.

Canada is now leading discussions with other allies, the ambassador said, including the 10 other countries that are already contributing troops to the force. Those include Spain, Italy, Albania, Poland, Slovakia and Slovenia.

“We are moving in the right direction,” Ozolins said. “The Canadians are leading the process. … This will be like a bit of a negotiation and discussion about who brings what.”

Since Russia’s invasion, Canada has deployed more forces to Latvia, adding to the 600 troops already there before the war began. That includes sending an artillery unit as well as a handful of staff officers, including a general.

Denmark has also stepped up in a big way in recent months, promising an 800-strong battalion following a request from NATO.

But Defence Minister Anita Anand’s office did not directly address questions on Monday about Canada leading a brigade-sized unit in Latvia, or the ongoing talks with fellow NATO allies about increasing the size of the force.

“Minister Anand remains in regular contact with Latvian Defence Minister (Artis) Pabriks about Canada’s further strengthening of its presence in the region,” spokeswoman Sabrina Kim said in an email.

“Since the beginning, Canada has made significant contributions to NATO’s deterrence and defence efforts on the eastern flank. In line with our allies in the region, we will continue to augment our contributions going forward.”

The battlegroups were initially billed as “tripwires,” with the aim of making the Kremlin think twice before launching an attack as doing so would bring a unified response from the whole of the 30-member NATO military alliance.

But with the war in Ukraine, alliance leaders now appear to agree with expert warnings that those tripwires would be more like speed bumps and do little to stop Russia from rolling through the Baltics before NATO could respond. 

During a visit by Latvia's prime minister in May, Trudeau acknowledged the need to “recalculate” NATO’s previous assumptions and what it considers acceptable with regards to an attack on the Baltics, noting the reports of mass atrocities by Russian troops in places like Bucha and Mariupol in Ukraine.

But he wouldn’t say whether Canada supports dramatically expanding the battlegroups and making them permanent.

Latvia is not necessarily expecting Canada to put more boots on the ground itself, Ozolins said, adding the multinational nature of the battlegroup in his country was likely one of the main reasons an announcement has yet to materialize.

“Canada leads the battlegroup with the most numerous countries,” he said. “Because of the sheer size and involvement of different countries in the battlegroup, it probably takes a little bit more time to discuss, consult and negotiate.”

The British-led battlegroup in Estonia includes four other nations while seven are working with the Germans in Lithuania.

The bottom line is that it is imperative the alliance bolster its military presence in Latvia and the surrounding region as a show of strength to prevent Russia from thinking it can simply roll through the Baltics, Ozolins said.

"Ukraine is a huge country and it's not so easily overtaken, whereas the Baltic states are geographically rather smaller countries and you would not have time for regrouping and reinforcing," he said.

"So that's why the current effort is geared towards actually having more forces on the ground."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 27, 2022.

Lee Berthiaume, The Canadian Press

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