With the first rotation of Canadian soldiers back from Latvia, the question of whether a Canadian, or indeed any NATO, military presence is necessary in the Baltic country is a relevant question once again. The June 2017 deployment of Canadian troops in Latvia was met with some scepticism, both from Latvians and Canadians, but as the mission has gone on, its necessity has become more apparent.
Canada led a coalition of five other states: Albania, Italy, Poland, Slovenia, and Spain. According to Lieutenant-Colonel Wade Rutland, the returning commanding officer of the Enhanced Forward Presence battle group, the mission in Latvia was to “make sure peace and stability stayed there.”
In 2008, Russian tanks rolled into Georgia to reinforce the separatist movements in the regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Since then, Russia has declared the regions independent states while Georgia contends that they are Russian occupied territories. In 2014, Russia flexed its expansionist muscles again when it provided support for a coup in Crimea, which ultimately led to Crimea rejoining Russia. It was in the wake of this instability that Canada contributed to a NATO force in Latvia.
In hindsight some commentators have said that the annexation of Crimea was not a planned move, it was an opportunistic gamble that was taken by the Kremlin. These same commentators contend that Vladimir Putin’s goals are not necessarily imperial but he’ll take the opportunity to expand if given the opportunity. Indeed, he did not force Crimea to join Russia, Abkhazia and South Ossetia remain in the eyes of the Kremlin, independent.
If Putin does not have a policy of imperialism then the question becomes: why would NATO need to put troops in Latvia, a seemingly stable country, what is there to protect in the country? While it may be true that Russia only annexed Crimea because the opportunity presented itself, the success of Crimea may have given new life to the idea of imperial expansion.
Russia watched as media outlets in western nations reported their disgust with how Crimea was taken but other than public outrage and, more, sanctions, there was very little NATO could, or would, do to stop them. Putin famously called the collapse of the USSR “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century.” When he made this statement, he was probably just lamenting the loss and not seriously planning anything to rebuild the old empire. His success in Ukraine, a former Soviet satellite state and one that Putin has claimed is not a state at all, may have sparked his desire to rebuild what he sees as lost Russian territory.
Though the Enhanced Forward Presence is small, made up of between 1200 and 1400 soldiers, it is symbolically very important. The number of different states involved means that if Russia were to try and invade Latvia, they would have to engage troops from other NATO countries in Europe and North America.
Whether Russia would risk a war with NATO over Latvia is not certain but they have made their opposition to troops there well known. They have led a campaign of misinformation in Latvia and Canada to try and diminish support for the NATO mission. For example in October 2017 they, allegedly, knocked out cell phone service in Latvia. This could be read as an ominous sign as Russia relied heavily on hacking during their annexation of Ukraine. A company linked to the Russian government likely used a malware implant on Android devices to track and target Ukrainian artillery units from late 2014 through 2016.
Though Ukraine and Latvia both border Russia, and were both Satellite States of the Soviet Union, there are some key differences between them. The most important of which is that Latvia is a member of NATO. Even without foreign troops on the ground, an invasion of Latvia would trigger Article Five. The second is strategic; the port of Sevastopol has been home to Russia’s Black Sea Fleet since 1783. The Ukrainian government had allowed Russia, to house its fleet there until 2042, in return for cheaper gas.
Latvia has a strong central government and a far more unified population than Crimea, who felt that they had a long history as a part of a larger Russian population. Contrastingly, in Latvia ethnic Russians are in the minority and co-exist with ethnic Latvians very well. Free Latvian classes are offered to Russian speakers in Riga and in September 2017, 10 000 people were enrolled in these lessons. Latvia has the highest rate of inter-ethnic marriage in Europe.
About 10 years ago Latvia reformed their school curriculum to make more time for Latvian instruction – this change was met with protest from some of the Russian population. This was the kind of protest that Russia often tries to magnify but in this case, they were unsuccessful. Russia used propaganda to convince people in Crimea that their standard of living would increase if they joined Russia. They, mostly, blamed unnecessary government spending of the Ukrainian Government. They, unsuccessfully, tried to replicate the feeling of animosity towards the Latvian government by the Russian population. Though Latvia’s GDP per Capita is four times that of Crimea’s before it was annexed, Russian media in Latvia has claimed that irresponsible government spending, such as an increase in defense spending, is keeping the nation’s people poor. Specifically, they use the example of pensioners who are not getting enough money because of the defense spending.
Though it does not look as though Russia is preparing to repeat in Latvia what it did in Crimea, NATO must remain vigilant. Operations such as this one, let all potential enemies to the alliance know that they are still united.
Photo: ADAZI MILITARY BASE, Latvia – Gen. Joseph Lengyel, Chief of National Guard Bureau and member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, attends a meeting with Lt. Col. Wade Rutland, commander of 1st Battalion, Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry and Col. Ilmars A. Lejins, commander of the Latvian Land Forces during Saber Strike, June 11. The meeting discusses the operation of the Canadian led Enhanced Forward Presence Battlegroup in Adazi, Latvia. Saber Strike is a U.S. Army Europe led exercise in the Baltic region. The exercise tests the capability of multiple nations to respond collectively against a threat. U.S. Army photo by Sgt. Shiloh Capers.
Found at: https://www.army.mil/article/189287/chief_of_the_us_national_guard_bureau_visits_service_members_during_exercise_saber_strike
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and do not necessarily represent the views of the NATO Association of Canada.