OTTAWA – President Donald Trump will loom large when representatives from several NATO countries gather here this week to finalize plans for deployment of a Canadian-led battle group to Latvia starting in the spring.
But at least one senior official from the eastern European nation is counselling calm.
Canada agreed last year to lead one of four multinational NATO forces in eastern Europe as the military alliance sought to bolster its presence and provide a check on Russian aggression in the region.
But that was before the outspoken real-estate mogul and reality TV star, who has repeatedly described NATO as “obsolete” and promised new ties with Russia, became president.
“We should not rush to make any conclusions. But we don’t have any reasons to question American leadership,” Janis Garisons, Latvian state secretary for defence, said Friday in an interview with The Canadian Press.
“And I’m convinced President Trump will continue with those things that were agreed to before.”
Even so, questions abound over how Trump will approach NATO and Russia. Many NATO allies are now wringing their hands over whether they can trust the U.S. to come to their aid should Russia attack.
Despite those concerns, Canada’s federal Liberal government has said it is pressing ahead with plans to deploy troops and armoured vehicles to Latvia, where they will serve as the core of a 1,000-strong battalion
Representatives from Albania, Italy, Latvia, Poland and Slovenia, each of which is contributing troops and equipment to the Canadian-led force, will travel to Ottawa this week to iron out the final details.
Garisons said the hope is for the first foreign troops to arrive by May, with all elements in place by July or August.
Canada is expected to send 450 soldiers as well as light armoured vehicles and other equipment from Edmonton in the first rotation, which will last about six months.
Officials have said Canada will continue to lead the mission in Latvia as long as required.
Garisons pointed to his meetings with U.S. officials during three days in Washington last week as well as recent comments by Trump’s picks for defence secretary and secretary of state as reasons for hope.
Retired general James Mattis, Trump’s pick for secretary of defence, told U.S. senators last week that Russia was trying to “break” NATO, before strongly defending the importance of the military alliance.
Oil tycoon Rex Tillerson, who has been nominated as secretary of state, was more guarded, but said Russia “poses a danger.”
Garisons said the fact the alliance is still deploying the battle groups to Latvia as well as Estonia, Lithuania and Poland, led by the U.K., Germany and the U.S., respectively, was also positive.
“From all of this process, it’s very clear that the alliance is united and the allies are united,” he said.
“And this is something which is very important. Because the strength of NATO and the strength of western societies is unity. If we are divided and we are not able to hold together, then I think that is a big problem.”
But Garisons said NATO members must also recognize, and act upon, the complaints that not only Trump but other U.S. leaders have voiced about the alliance not carrying its own weight.
Trump alluded to that during his inaugural speech Friday, saying the U.S. had for decades “subsidized the armies of other countries while allowing for the very sad depletion of our military.”
“We’ve defended other nations’ borders while refusing to defend our own.”
That’s actually a very familiar sentiment, Garisons said.
“Maybe it wasn’t put in such an explicit way, but we have heard it from many U.S. defence officials. It’s nothing new, and I think we should recognize it.”
It’s also why Latvia has ramped up its own defence spending, which is currently at about 1.7 per cent of its gross domestic product, but will reach the NATO target of two per cent next year.
Canada currently spends less than one per cent of its GDP on defence.
Eastern Europe allies asked NATO to bolster its presence in the region as a deterrent against Russia trying to destabilize them in the same way it did Ukraine. That includes crossing into their territory, inciting Russian speakers within their borders and cyberattacks.
Russia has denied any such intentions and instead accused NATO of instigating the current standoff by expanding into former Soviet territory and trying to undermine its sphere of influence. It has also warned against any military build-up on its borders.
Garisons said Latvian soldiers will be responsible for patrolling the country’s border with Russia, while the Canadians and other members of the NATO force provide training and other assistance as required.