Why on earth is Canada sending troops to Latvia?

At the NATO Summit in Warsaw last week, the leaders of the Western alliance finally decided that it was time to do something serious to deter Russia from further intimidating the eastern flank allies. Under Poland’s leadership, the East European members had agitated strenuously for NATO to permanently station troops there to defend their borders with Russia. It was a step the United States and Germany in particular had resisted, on the spurious grounds that it would be considered “provocative” and further heighten tensions with Moscow.

It was a sensible step to take given Russia’s naked aggression in Crimea, its effective take-over of Eastern Ukraine, and the aggressive military exercises it has been conducting in the Baltics. The idea is to establish an “enhanced forward presence” in Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland in the form of multinational battalion-sized battle groups that can work with national forces in the four countries to build up each country’s capacity to resist attack. The numbers of troops are not great, but they will make Russia think twice about using force against any or all of the nations in question. Not only would Russia’s immediate military task become more difficult, but Moscow would be left in no doubt that it would have to kill the forces of other countries including the United States in order to succeed — which would bring on a much larger war it could not win.

So, a good idea. But why on earth is Canada one of the countries committing troops to this venture, specifically to Latvia? Like every member of NATO, Canada is bound by Article 3 of the North Atlantic Treaty to maintain and develop its capacity to resist armed attack, and by Article 5 to assist any member attacked. During the Cold War, Canadians gave effect to these pledges by spending before 4% and 8% of their GDP on defence and stationing (in the mid-1960s) some 6,700 troops in West Germany. But that was when Western Europe was still recovering from the devastation it had suffered from two world wars and could not hope to defend itself against the vast ground forces of the Warsaw Pact.  The situation is very different today. A US military “tripwire” is still essential to deterrence, as is the forward presence of major European powers. But so far only two of them have stepped forward, Britain and Germany. Why does Canada have to participate in this confidence game to the extent of committing a significant portion of its scarce armed forces to defending Europe — while France (355,000), Italy (377,000), Spain (229,000), Portugal (302,000) and Greece (364,000) with larger forces stand back and watch?

Extracts from the final declaration of the Warsaw Summit

  1. In light of the changed and evolving security environment, further adaptation is needed.  Therefore, we have decided to further strengthen the Alliance’s deterrence and defence posture.  Building on the success of the Readiness Action Plan, today we are adopting a broad approach to deterrence and defence which draws upon all of the tools at NATO’s disposal.  This will provide the Alliance with a range of options to be able to respond to any threats from wherever they arise.  Given the different nature, types and origins of threats, we will tailor our response to specific circumstances.  Taken together, the measures we are approving at this Summit will enhance the security of all Allies and ensure protection of Alliance territory, populations, airspace and sealines of communication, including across the Atlantic, against all threats from wherever they arise.  In this context, our response is united and adequate to the new security environment, demonstrating our ability and willingness to defend one another.  As part of the Alliance posture, these measures are defensive in nature, proportionate, consistent with our international commitments and demonstrate our respect for the rules-based European security architecture.
  2. As a means to prevent conflict and war, credible deterrence and defence is essential.  At the same time, as part of the Alliance’s overall approach to providing security for NATO populations and territory, deterrence has to be complemented by meaningful dialogue and engagement with Russia, to seek reciprocal transparency and risk reduction.  Those efforts will not come at the expense of ensuring NATO’s credible deterrence and defence.
  3. We have decided to establish an enhanced forward presence in Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland to unambiguously demonstrate, as part of our overall posture, Allies’ solidarity, determination, and ability to act by triggering an immediate Allied response to any aggression.  Beginning in early 2017, enhanced forward presence will comprise multinational forces provided by framework nations and other contributing Allies on a voluntary, sustainable, and rotational basis.  They will be based on four battalion-sized battlegroups that can operate in concert with national forces, present at all times in these countries, underpinned by a viable reinforcement strategy.  We welcome the offers of Canada, Germany, the United Kingdom and the United States to serve as framework nations for the robust multinational presence in Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia and Poland respectively.  We have also accepted the Polish offer to provide an existing division headquarters as a basis for the establishment of a multinational division headquarters, pending agreement on the modalities by the Council.  We recognise the integral role host nations will play in enhanced forward presence.  We further welcome additional contributions from across the Alliance to support this important endeavour.  We recognise the significant resource commitments of Allies.
  4. We will also develop tailored forward presence in the southeast part of the Alliance territory.  Appropriate measures, tailored to the Black Sea region and including the Romanian initiative to establish a multinational framework brigade to help improve integrated training of Allied units under Headquarters Multinational Division Southeast, will contribute to the Alliance’s strengthened deterrence and defence posture, situational awareness, and peacetime demonstration of NATO’s intent to operate without constraint.  It will also provide a strong signal of support to regional security.  Options for a strengthened NATO air and maritime presence will be assessed.
  5. As part of the Readiness Action Plan and as a contribution to our deterrence and defence posture, we have established a framework for NATO’s adaptation in response to growing challenges and threats emanating from the south.  The framework focusses on better regional understanding and situational awareness, the ability to anticipate and respond to crises emanating from the south, improved capabilities for expeditionary operations, and enhancing NATO’s ability to project stability through regional partnerships and capacity building efforts.  We will proceed with the implementation of this framework.

 

The mission of the Vimy Report is to inject new information that will raise the quality of public discussion on security and defence issues, to do so with impact, and thereby to educate and influence the ultimate decision-makers: citizens and their elected representatives.

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