Canada's mission to scare off Russia -

Canada’s mission to scare off Russia

Paul Wells visits Camp Adazi, Latvia, where a Canadian-led battlegroup marked its first official day on the job

(Ints Kalnins/Reuters)

(Ints Kalnins/Reuters)

If you’re going to get into a mess with no idea when you’ll ever get out, there are worse places to do it. On Monday more than 400 Canadian soldiers stood in the midday sun on the parade square at Camp Adazi, a Latvian army base tucked into a pine forest northeast of Riga, the tiny Baltic nation’s capital. To the right of the Canadians stood about as many Latvian troops. On either side were smaller groups of Spanish, Italian, Polish, Slovenian and Albanian soldiers.

This is the Canadian-led battlegroup, 1,138 troops in full from the six visitor nations, plus their Latvian hosts, and Monday was the newcomers’ first official day on the job. On hand for a welcoming ceremony were Latvia’s president Raimonds Vējonis, NATO’s secretary-general Jens Stoltenberg, Canada’s defence minister Harjit Sajjan, and the top soldier in every participating country’s armed forces, including Canada’s chief of defence staff, Gen. Jonathan Vance.

Their mission is to scare off the Russians. Probably it will work. Everybody’s pretty sure it will work. If it didn’t work, things would get very nasty here.

But this was a day for looking on the bright side. “Many of you have travelled over 7,000 km, all the way from Alberta, Canada, to serve here in the Eastern part of the alliance,” Stoltenberg told the troops. And indeed it’s so, because the first Canadians to serve a six-month rotation here are from the 1st Battalion of Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry, stationed in Edmonton. “You embody the unique spirit and solidarity of NATO,” Stoltenberg told them.

There was much talk of solidarity. “Our alliance stands as one,” Stoltenberg said. “An attack on one ally will be regarded as an attack on all.”

That’s what NATO was designed for, back in the middle of the 20th century, during a cold war everyone here insists they don’t want to see returning. Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty says that an attack on any member state will meet a response from them all. NATO didn’t have Georgia’s back when Vladimir Putin invaded that country in 2008, nor did it really have Ukraine’s when Russia annexed Crimea and made trouble in other regions of Eastern Ukraine in 2014. They weren’t NATO member states. Latvia, Lithuanian and Estonia are, which is why there is a NATO battlegroup in each of those Baltic countries and in Poland, starting today: To make it crystal-clear that invading a NATO member state would not be fun.

“If somebody will attack any NATO country, it means it is an attack on NATO, and everybody will have to help this attacked country,” Vējonis, the Latvian president, said. “But I don’t believe Russia will attack a NATO country because it can raise” — that is, provoke — “a real war. And I am sure Russia is not ready for a huge-scale war.”

This is probably a good bet. This Canadian-led battlegroup has teeth: Canadian, Italian and Spanish mechanized infantry companies, plus a Polish tank company for even heavier firepower. Battlegroups in the other countries bring the total number of soldiers assigned to NATO’s so-called Enhanced Forward Presence to 4,530.

Still, that would be a disappointing turnout for a Lumineers concert, and the gang on the other side of the fence is massive: in August the Russians and neighbouring Belarusians will launch the latest version of Zapad, a massive war-game exercise Russia holds every three or four years that mobilizes between 50,000 and 100,000 troops.

The mismatch is, to some degree, part of the message, officials said: it’s harder to perceive a deployment on the scale of NATO’s Enhanced Forward Presence as a provocation. Although one suspects the Russians will manage. And if anyone ever did move into the Baltics in a big way, the EFP battlegroups wouldn’t be the only response. NATO has tripled its multinational Response Force to 40,000 troops. A new Spearhead Force can send 5,000 soldiers within days.

So the Canadians at Camp Adazi and their colleagues across the region are there to be a tripwire, or to stave off aggressors until reinforcements arrive. “Can’t give away all the trade secrets to you,” Vance said, but “the response plans, of which there are many… would be swift and quite decisive.”

In the meantime, the Canadians will drill, practice, rehearse, and plan for a confrontation they hope their very presence will forestall. After six months the Princess Patricias will rotate home, to be replaced by someone else. Climate and camp infrastructure will keep the work from being too unpleasant. “This is better than some of our camps” back home, a Canadian soldier said on Monday morning.

Best case, the Russians were never going to invade and this whole effort is a waste. Worst case, an invasion would overwhelm the tenants of Camp Adazi in days. There are a thousand middle cases, aggression that may once have been worth the risk that now, perhaps, won’t be. That middle ground is terrain the Canadians and their NATO allies have now begun to patrol.



Canada’s mission to scare off Russia

  1. While a mechanised battle group, trained and equipped to western standards will probably be a somewhat meaningful deterrent to any adventures by “little green men,” the author tiptoes around the real deterrence value provided by the troops: their lives are meant to be an insurance policy against the fickleness and unreliability of modern western democracies.

    The West didn’t “have Ukraine’s back,” when Russia seized Crimea and supported the Donbas rebel groups, despite the US and UK having a treaty obligation to do so (no, not NATO, it was the Budapest Memorandum, where Ukraine traded its share of the Soviet nukes for Western assurances that they would protect Ukrainian sovereignty from Russian aggression). The reason the West didn’t is that your average New Yorker or Londoner (Torontonian, Rotterdamer, Parisian, etc) before 2014 only knows Crimea from The Charge of The Light Brigade, and couldn’t point to Donetsk on a map to save their life. The average voter on the street would not have countenanced sending troops to die for some unpronounceable scrap of land in eastern Europe, and their governments knew that.

    Fast forward to 2017, and the average Westerner doesn’t know where Riga or Vilnius is either, so in order to reassure our Baltic allies, and deter Russia, NATO has put Western soldiers in the Baltic, because while the voters might not get too worked up over a headline claiming “Russia invades [insert random patch of Eastern Europe],” if it comes attached to a list of American/Canadian/British/Italian/Spanish/etc casualties, that will get people over here angry. That will give our governments the public mandate to go through the expensive and time consuming process of actually, seriously hurting Russia. (Barring the Americans pulling a superweapon out of their back pocket, you can’t really conquer Russia, ’cause it has nukes, but you can really make it hurt by striking infrastructure, destroying its Navy, isolating it from its partners, having an [expensive] conversation with China and India about why they should not do business with Russia, etc.)

    • The west didn’t have Ukraine’s back? I don’t think the west expected the mess the Ukrainians would make out of another perfectly good wag the dog ‘revolution’. The notion that they would actually start killing each other, over their ‘history’, was as ‘lost’ on the modern westerner as it was on the Wehrmacht when it showed up to effect change in 1941.

    • I would not count so heavily on western casualties – the “battle groups” would move back & limit their losses and Russians would let them retreat. All Estonia needs to do is make a move against Russian majority in its capital – say start throwing people out like Slobodan Milosevic in Yugoslav Kosovo. Russia would be forced to move in. Net result would be maybe 100+ dead and change in government in Estonia.

    • I enjoyed your analysis. In either event here we are at this crossroads. (how we got there up for grabs). I wonder how it will turn out. I for one am pleased whenever Russian values are thwarted. I dont like strongmen ruled countries.

  2. Devil’s Advocate mode ON:

    NATO marching east from Germany in the eighties to the border of Russia today can certainly be seen as a provocation (especially since James Baker promised Edward Shevardnadze that the US wouldn’t if Russia accepted German reunification). Setting up anti-missile defenses (which are dual capable…i.e. capable of launching short range nukes) in Romania and South Korea can also be seen as a provocation. The Victoria Nuland led coup (they could have waited for the next election) in Ukraine could be seen as a provocation. (This provocation backfired.) The United States has had a policy of nuclear supremacy since the mid-nineties Clinton years (when the MAD policy was abandoned by the US Deep State), which is a policy to intimidate Russia (and China after them) into submission.

    The Baltics helped bankrupt the former Soviet Union. Why would Russia want them back? Putin just doesn’t want them part of NATO to have some reaction time to prevent mistakes from happening.

    Let there be no misunderstanding. Admitting Ukraine into NATO means global nuclear war. It won’t be a few Russian green men in Donetsk. Or tanks crossing into Latvia.

    • I don’t think the Baltics carry much value for Russia given they have Kalingrad. Plus Russia let them join NATO long time ago.

      The missile systems in Poland and Romania area a clear violation of a treaty – as they can be used to fire prohibited Tomahawk missiles. Treaty is written in a strange way that allows longer ranges from sea fired systems – maybe it needs to be re-written. Russia also faces threats from nations not under that treaty (China).

      I fail to see US nuclear supremacy in any area over Russia. They both abandoned fire on Alert and have similar systems with Russia clearly having an edge in ground based systems.

      Baltics are too small to bankrupt Soviet Union & they were quite “rich” for problems look at the deep south. These people had currency just for over 100 years & their cities (all of them) are less than 100 years old. Costs to give them electricity / roads / cities etc. was enormous.

      Ukraine is not joining NATO for a long, long time. Unless someone wants political suicide and wants to give Russia all it holds now. Besides, why would you want such unstable regime in NATO – Turkey is enough.

  3. The Russians Canada might want to ‘scare off’ won’t be the first ones to ‘get the mess’ bubbling – at least not directly. They, according to the ‘scenario’, will use ‘russians’ resident in places like the Baltics, to foment ‘strife’ which will, naturally, require some suppression.

    Canada needs to avoid being used as the force that carries out a ‘domestic’ suppression. If our ‘support’ for Ukraine – another nation re’putin’edly in ‘Russian gunsights’ – is an indicator – we should be training Latvian forces how to combat an insurgency, or carry out ‘police actions’ on ‘insurgent’ forces.

  4. The easiest way to deter Russia in the Baltics is to treat rather large (majority in two out of three capitals) minority happy. Respect EU / international laws. Unfortunately treatment of any minority, not just Russian in the Baltics doesn’t follow any EU standards. Thus I am wondering what would be Canadian response if large minority demonstrations are put down with guns & demonstrators like in say Kiev fight back – would Canadian soldiers be used to kill in the name of non-democracy? Would they ask people for IDs in order to determine they are “legit” demonstrators vs. little green men?

    Also, the whole “red alert” is overrated by the Baltics themselves, only one spends >2% and not by much – this is not something countries fearing invasion do. Also watch local response to simulated Russian invasion – it was a comedy.

  5. Follow the money trail.
    Who is the largest manufacturer of weapons and military equipment in the world with military budget of $650 billions equivalent of the next 11 countries combined, that include China and Russia!?
    Who is pushing that NATO member countries spend minimum 2% for defence of their budgets?
    Without “cold and hot wars” military Industrial complex would be bankrupted. Remember words from outgoing former US President and Five Star General D. A. 60 years ago about US Industrial Military Complex!!
    Instead of this madness we should be increasing budgets on education, health care and new civilian technologies and innovation that would benefit majority of the world population.

    • An interesting point you have made. Taking it down to the financial level. Got me thinking about how to describe Trump’s vision of his America First policy. Being a businessman he appears to be open to ‘deals’ from countries if they can make a business case for their actions. NATO and the old world order be dammed. But he gets in on the action. Think of Russia and their oil. (it has been reported that he signed a deal in Dec 2016 for a share of proceeds) Maybe he has some secret deals from Saudi Arabia as well. sure looks like it eh?

  6. Thanks for the game theory. Not mentioned is the effect of Trump’s final statement that he now supports Article V. So the US may be forced to respond in your worse case scenario of Russia invading That would be an interesting tangent to pursue in another article. Apparently Trump defied Mathis and Tillerson at NATO by intentionally leaving the Article V commitment out of the prepared speech. (maybe to appease his Russian friends? donno?) Recently we must also add the fact the Russia and America are spitting at each other over Syria. And of course North Korea. All involve a Russian influence.

  7. Since we’ve largely decided that our very expensive conventional army isn’t up for combat- training Kurds apparently is beyond it- what to do with it? The sensible answer might be to make the reserves bigger at the expense of the regular army. If you’re not going to use the army until there’s a sustained war why not have a few more people at far less cost? No there are too many rice bowls that would be broken. How about finding something for it to do? Peacekeeping? No it turns out that just means joining in a small war without having Americans in charge. Latvia! There’s no real threat from Russia but it’ll make NATO happy and give the troops a holiday.

    Whenever anyone suggests yet another “mission” for the CF it should be looked at from the militaries point of view. Don’t look for “strategy” or “national interests”. Look for what does it get? Cash, equipment, gongs, interesting jobs for senior officers, travel, justification for existing units or even expansion. It was the personal and institutional goals of the CF which were the primary drivers of our second mission in Kandahar and both missions in Kabul.

    DND is currently a bigger material threat to Canada than anything that it can protect us from. The continuous search for things to do is just one part of the harm it does to us.