WARSAW, Poland – Canada is sending hundreds of troops to Latvia for the long haul.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced at the NATO leaders’ summit in Poland on Friday that Canada will take command of a 1,000-strong multinational force in Latvia, as the alliance beefs up its presence in the Baltics and Poland in response to recent Russian actions.
Speaking on the sidelines of the summit, defence chief Gen. Jonathan Vance revealed that Canada will send about 450 soldiers along with armoured vehicles to the Baltic state as part of an “enduring” NATO presence in Eastern Europe.
The Canadians will form the “nucleus” of a battle group in Latvia, Vance said, that with the addition of forces from other allies, is expected to grow to about 1,000 troops. Germany, the United States and Britain are leading similar forces in Lithuania, Poland and Estonia.
Allies are expected to begin announcing contributions at a conference next week, while officials indicated the first Canadian troops could begin arriving in Latvia early next year.
Vance said he couldn’t say how long they would stay. But NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg “has been clear this is an open-ended commitment,” Vance pointed out. “And so Canada has committed to that. We’ll take it as it comes. But it is intended to be enduring.”
Latvia’s foreign affairs minister predicted an extended stay in his country for the Canadians. In an exclusive interview with The Canadian Press, Edgars Rinkevics said: “My answer on how long is a very simple one: As long as necessary.
“Frankly, with that rhetoric in Moscow,” he added, “I don’t believe, and I’m not as optimistic as some of my colleagues, that we are going to see this happening soon. I think that we are in this situation for quite a long time.”
There have been fears NATO and Russia are on the brink of a new Cold War, if they aren’t already in one. The lack of any clear timetable for when Canadian troops will come home from Eastern Europe may well add to those comparisons.
In addition to the troops, Canada will deploy up to six CF-18s to Europe on an occasional basis to help patrol allied airspace. It will also continue sending naval frigates to the region, as it has done since April 2014.
The combined efforts will bring the number of Canadian military personnel in Eastern Europe at any given time up to a maximum of 800, which the government says is Canada’s largest sustained military deployment to the continent in over a decade.
Appearing with Vance, Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan pushed back on the Cold War comparisons.
“This is about sending a right message of cohesion within NATO, giving confidence to member states, and showing how important deterrence is so we can get back to a responsible dialogue,” he said.
Speaking to reporters earlier in the day, Stoltenberg said alliance members “don’t want a new Cold War. The Cold War is history and it should remain history.”
However, the NATO chief also said the world has seen a more assertive Russia that is willing to use military force, as exemplified by its annexations of Crimea and support for separatists in Ukraine. He said that is why the deployment of allied forces into Eastern Europe is necessary.
“They will send a clear message that an attack on one ally will be an attack on the whole alliance,” Stoltenberg said. “I believe this approach, with defence and dialogue, is the only viable long-term approach to Russia.”
Eastern Europe allies had been asking NATO to bolster its presence in the region as a deterrent against Russia trying to destabilize them in the same way it did in Ukraine. That includes crossing into their territory, inciting Russian speakers within their borders and cyber attacks.
Russia has denied any such intentions, and instead has 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.
As Trudeau and the other alliance heads of state and government were gathering in the Polish capital, a spokesman for Russian President Vladimir Putin said Moscow is willing to co-operate with NATO, even though he said the alliance is treating Russia like an enemy.
Russia “has always been open for dialogue” with NATO, especially to fight what it sees as a “genuine threat” – terrorism, Dmitry Peskov said.
“Russia is not looking (for an enemy) but it actually sees it happening,” Peskov told reporters in Moscow. “When NATO soldiers march along our border and NATO jets fly by, it’s not us who are moving closer to the NATO borders.”
With files from the Associated Press