Canadian-led battle group will deploy to Latvia, part of NATO move to deter Russia

Canada will send soldiers to Latvia by early 2017 as part of a NATO plan to counter fears of Russian aggression in eastern Europe, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau confirmed Friday.

New NATO brigade raises the stakes for interfering in the Baltic states, Canada's top general says

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau arrives with Foreign Affairs Minister Stephane Dion, left, and Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan, right, at the NATO summit in Warsaw. Trudeau confirmed Canada will contribute troops as the Western alliance expands its presence in eastern Europe to counter fears of Russian expansion. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

Canada will send a battle group of soldiers to Latvia by early 2017 as part of a NATO plan to counter fears of Russian aggression in eastern Europe, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau confirmed Friday.

The roughly 450 Canadians will form the nucleus of a robust multi-national combat battalion, part of a brigade to provide credible deterrence against further Russian expansionism in the region.

That number could fluctuate depending upon negotiations with other allies who are expected to help fill out the ranks for an open-ended mission, which Canada's chief of defence staff says raises the stakes for any nation thinking of interfering in the Baltics.

"What deterrence looks like is that it raises the threshold of risk (for Russia). It may be slight, but it is definitely there," said Gen. Jonathan Vance.

"You can use the term 'tripwire' as descriptors, but what it really does is raise that calculus of risk. Do you take any steps against a NATO nation given that the alliance has decided to put in very credible combat forces?"

Vance on Canada's new mission in the Baltics

7 years ago
Duration 0:57
Canada's top general says our new NATO mission in Eastern Europe to deter Russian aggression is intended to be a "deterrent posture built on mutual respect as opposed to one nation bullying others."

In addition, the Liberal government renewed a commitment 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 — will continue as well.

Fears of new Cold War downplayed

The announcement came as the secretary general of the Western military alliance sought to dial back fears the build up means the world is on the cusp of a new Cold War.

"The Cold War is history and it should remain history," Jens Stoltenberg said on his way in to the leader's summit on Friday.

"We will continue to seek constructive and meaningful dialogue with Russia to make our intentions clear, to dispel any misunderstanding and to reduce the risk of military incidents or accidents spiralling out of control."

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg joined leaders from the 28 member countries of the alliance in Warsaw on Friday for talks described as NATO's most crucial since the 1989 fall of the Berlin Wall. (Markus Schreiber/Associated Press)

The Liberal government's contribution to Latvia's defence is being described in military circles as a "framework battalion," meaning Canada will provide the backbone of one of four combat formations. Three other nations — the U.S., Britain and Germany — will create their own battalions.

In addition to an infantry company, Canada will be expected to deliver headquarters oversight, leadership and other essential support units that allow the battalion to function and fight. Other NATO countries will contribute smaller contingents to each battalion.

It will be a long-term deployment. Every six to nine months, a fresh batch of Canadian troops will be rotated through the battalion until NATO decides to dissolve the brigade.

NATO troops on Russian doorstep

The battalions, which make up the brigade, will be sprinkled on Russia's doorstep, providing both reassurance and insurance to some of the newest members of the military alliance — all of them former Cold War adversaries who are alarmed at Moscow's annexation of Crimea and the ongoing war in eastern Ukraine.

The three Baltic states —- Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia — have sizeable Russian populations, which some fear could be used as a pretext for a Russian takeover, as it was during the spring of 2014 in Crimea.

Western leaders have signalled their intention for months and Russian President Vladimir Putin's government has responded with not only the usual war of words, but with hardware and a planned buildup of troops.

Russian President Vladimir Putin's government responded to NATO's ramp-up with a planned buildup of troops. (Alexi Druzhinin/Sputnik via Reuters)

Last spring, Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu announced the Russian military would create by the end of 2016 two new army divisions totalling approximately 20,000 soldiers. One will be stationed on its western border; the other on the southern frontier.

"The defence ministry is undertaking steps to counter the growing NATO potential in close proximity to Russian borders," Shoigu said in a statement.

The creation of the new units represents a doubling of Russian troops along its western borders since January.

Russia could see brigade as 'sabre-rattling'

Perhaps most importantly for the Canadians about to go into the Baltic: there were published reports last month that suggested Russia was preparing to deploy advanced nuclear-capable missiles in Kaliningrad, a tiny spit of territory wedged between Poland and Lithuania.

The Reuters news agency, quoting unnamed senior Russian defence officials, said the placement of Iskander mobile missiles will likely take place in 2019 and comes in direct response to the establishment of U.S. anti-missile sites in eastern Europe.

The Iskander replaced the infamous Scud as the premiere ground-to-ground missile in the old Soviet arsenal.

In a statement Friday, the Russian embassy in Canada said the NATO actions were "reminiscent of Cold-War sabre-rattling and a complete waste of money and resources."

"Unfortunately, the latest decision of a number of NATO members to build up their forces in proximity to Russia does not in any way contribute to strengthening the security situation in Europe. Russia is in no way presenting a threat to anyone. However, we see this is a challenge and we will find necessary means to respond to it," said embassy spokesman Kirill Kalinin.

Canadian officials, speaking on background, took pains to emphasize they don't consider the addition of four battalions to be a threatening gesture.

"We've just upped the game a little bit," said the military official.

Later Friday, Trudeau held a bilateral meeting with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, where Canadian officials said Trudeau emphasized Canada's commitment to helping Afghanistan maintain its security and discussed opportunities for cooperation to strengthen respect for human rights in Afghanistan, especially for women and girls.

On Wednesday, U.S. President Barrack Obama slowed the pace of America's troop withdrawal, saying 8,400 soldiers will remain in the country.

NATO leaders pose for the traditional family photo at PGE National Stadium at the NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is in the back row, at left. (Susan Walsh/Associated Press)


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.