Canadians prepare to face cyberwarriors and fake news in Latvia mission

The first Canadian troops assigned to NATO's deterrence force in Latvia will arrive in the Baltic country by June, the country's chief of defence staff said Friday. The deployment of 450 troops to check a resurgent Russia was agreed to by the Trudeau government last summer.

'I don’t think we're in a race,' defence chief says over Canada being last to deploy in Baltics

An Estonian soldier wears camouflage makeup during the multinational military exercise 'Iron Sword 16' near Vilnius, Lithuania, in December. Canadian troops will deploy into Latvia, a neighbouring Baltic state, in June as part of NATO's deterrence force. (Olivier Hoslet/EPA)

The first Canadian troops will arrive in Latvia in June, kicking off a much-anticipated NATO deployment to restrain potential Russian ambitions in eastern Europe, Gen. Jonathan Vance said Friday.

Roughly 450 Canadians will form the backbone and leadership of a multinational battle group that will eventually number between 1,200 and 1,500 troops.

Four countries — Albania, Italy, Poland and Slovenia — have promised to contribute troops and equipment to the Canadian-led contingent. Those countries will have their troops on the ground by the fall, the chief of defence staff said.

Tripwire force

The battle group is one-of-four battalion-sized formations being deployed to the Baltic states by the Western military alliance.

They are intended as a deterrent force — or, as some commentators have described it, a "tripwire" in case of Russian expansionism.

The Trudeau government agreed to the mission during last summer's NATO summit in Warsaw, but didn't say precisely when the mission would begin.

Vance told attendees at a security conference in Ottawa he anticipates Moscow will attempt — at the very least — to discredit the Canadian force, as it has tried to do with other allies.

Chief of Defence Staff Gen. Jonathan Vance says Canada's deployment in Latvia will not just be military-to-military, but will include social connections between the two countries. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

The U.S., Britain and Germany are leading the other three battalions, which have already begun moving into Estonia, Lithuania and Poland. Those eastern European countries have been nervous since Russia annexed Crimea and war erupted in eastern Ukraine in the spring of 2014.

Canadian battle group last in

The Canadian battle group will be the last to arrive, something Vance defended as a function of geography and logistics.

"I don't think we're in race," said the chief of defence staff, who pointed out NATO did not establish a timeline for delivery of troops and equipment. "Some of the factors at play: We're further away from Latvia than Germany is Estonia. We have infrastructure to put in place."

Vance's latter point was a reference to the construction of accommodations at the air base where the troops will be located, something that Access to Information records show has been the subject of negotiations between the two countries.

"There's no point in arriving there before we can live there," Vance said.

The election of U.S. President Donald Trump created a sense of urgency for the Americans to get into eastern Europe, said Steve Saideman, an international affairs professor at Carleton University.

The Obama administration wanted to make sure Trump, whose relationship with Moscow is hard to pin down, could not dial back — or even cancel — the troop movement, he said.

Washington dispatched a brigade combat team, which is much larger than what the other allies, including Canada, are deploying.

"[That means] there is already is a deterrent force in place, so there's not as much urgency for the Canadians," he said.

Preparing for cyberattacks

Russia's neighbours are worried the Kremlin will try to destabilize them with cyberattacks and intelligence operations. Specifically, there are concerns about attempts to incite Russian nationals living within their borders.

Moscow has denied having designs on the region and accused NATO of being provocative by placing troops on its border.

It is unclear how Moscow and Russian President Vladimir Putin will respond to the deployment of Canadian troops in Latvia. (Reuters)

Aside from bringing light armoured vehicles and other equipment, Vance said the Canadians are beefing up their capability to counter cyberattacks and respond to propaganda campaigns.

"We need to take on a sophisticated information operations campaign to ensure that truth prevails."

The use of so-called fake news and disinformation is a hallmark of what military experts call hybrid warfare, and it was used with remarkable precision and effectiveness by Russian troops who took over Crimea, and later when Moscow-backed separatists battled in eastern Ukraine.

Canadian commanders fully expect to see "efforts to make it appear that Latvia doesn't want us there," said Vance.

But Saideman said he believes Canadians will get a warm reception, both politically and because of the economic benefit the sustained deployment will bring.

"The Latvians are very, very keen to have a presence there," he said.

Preparing for a long stay

The Canadian presence in Latvia will have a semi-permanent feel to it. Vance said there will be "families living there, troops rotating in and out" and journalists will be invited to spend time with the battle group.

"There will be an incredibly strong and powerful connection between Canada and Latvia — not only military-to-military, but on a social level," he said.

In addition to troops, the Liberal government has committed to provide six CF-18 fighter jets for air policing duties over the Baltic states, a mission the air force last conducted in 2014.

The deployment of a navy frigate as part of NATO's standing task force — something that was first ordered by the former Conservative government — continues as well.


Murray Brewster

Senior reporter, defence and security

Murray Brewster is senior defence writer for CBC News, based in Ottawa. He has covered the Canadian military and foreign policy from Parliament Hill for over a decade. Among other assignments, he spent a total of 15 months on the ground covering the Afghan war for The Canadian Press. Prior to that, he covered defence issues and politics for CP in Nova Scotia for 11 years and was bureau chief for Standard Broadcast News in Ottawa.