Politics·CBC in Ukraine

Building brigades: Canada, NATO allies struggle to shore up Baltic defences against Russian threat

Converting NATO's so-called "tripwire" forces in the three Baltic countries to fully topped-up fighting brigades — the kind that could withstand a Russian invasion — is proving to be a challenge for the lead nations involved: Canada, the United Kingdom and Germany.

Canada doesn't have enough troops to deploy without resorting to mobilization, report warns

Canadian soldiers at Camp Adazi in Latvia on July 26, 2022. Canada has taken on the creation of a full combat brigade in Latvia, one of the 'tripwire' countries faced with Russian aggression. (Submitted by Canadian Armed Forces)

The idea looks good on paper.

But converting NATO's so-called "tripwire" forces in the three Baltic countries to fully topped-up fighting brigades — the kind that could withstand a Russian invasion — is proving to be a challenge for the lead nations involved: Canada, the United Kingdom and Germany.

At the last NATO summit in Madrid, leaders of the Western military alliance ordered the conversion of battle groups in Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia to full combat brigades with anywhere from 4,000 to 6,000 troops each, depending on the availability of equipment.

Getting there is proving to be a struggle, according to two recent reports — one from the U.K. House of Commons, the other from a Warsaw-based international affairs think-tank.

Since that June NATO summit, journalists have been asking Canadian politicians and military officials when the Canadian-led brigade in Latvia will be created and what it will look like. Their responses have been vague.

In a recent interview with CBC News, Chief of Defence Staff Gen. Wayne Eyre wouldn't be pinned down to a precise timeline but said "the first exercise we're looking at is in 2024 … at the brigade level."

Which means that completing the expansion to brigade level could take Canada two years from start to finish.

And it seems Canada isn't the only country struggling with the creation of combat brigades — despite the demands of Baltic leaders and the political urgency Western politicians have attached to the project.

A research briefing for the British House of Commons noted that the U.K., which leads the NATO mission in Estonia, has two battle groups assigned to the country — one under the alliance flag, the other deployed bilaterally by former prime minister Boris Johnson in the immediate aftermath of Russia's full invasion of Ukraine.

"However, in October the Ministry of Defence (MOD) announced that the additional battlegroup will not be replaced in 2023," said the research paper, dated Nov. 21, 2022.

"The U.K. will continue to lead the NATO battlegroup. Instead of the additional battlegroup, the U.K. will hold at high readiness the 'balance of a Brigade' in the U.K., available to deploy if needed."

A British soldier checks equipment on a tank during a break in a NATO exercise at Camp Adazi near Riga, Latvia on Thursday, Nov.17, 2022.
A British soldier checks equipment on a tank during a break in a NATO exercise at Camp Adazi near Riga, Latvia, on Nov. 17, 2022. (Patrice Bergeron/The Canadian Press)

The U.K. also promised to "surge" forces throughout the year to conduct exercises, enhance its headquarters and provide support to the Estonian armed forces.

The problem — according to the Centre for Eastern Studies, a Warsaw-based analytics organization — is that the U.K., like Canada, doesn't have enough troops to deploy without resorting to drastic measures like mobilization. 

"At present — and for the foreseeable future — the British Army is unable to maintain a continuous rotational presence of an entire armoured brigade outside the U.K. without announcing mobilization," says a Centre for Eastern Studies report entitled Expectations vs. Reality: NATO Brigades in the Baltic States.

Britain's "3rd Division, intended for operations in the European theater, will only complete the process of restructuring and modernisation by 2030 … That is why London is unable to assign a specific brigade to Estonia, but can only offer individual subunits," says the report.

How much army does Canada need?

The report goes on to say that "Canada also has the problem of deploying an entire brigade without prior mobilization, as its peacetime armed forces consist of only three mechanized brigades."

Canada's federal government is currently re-examining the country's defence policy. One of the things being discussed as part of that process is the appropriate size of the Canadian military, given how the global security climate has changed in recent years.

The Germans, who lead the NATO battle group in Lithuania, are facing their own challenge — namely, their commitment of troops to the alliance's standing crisis force.

"The German Army will not have one fully equipped brigade available until 2023, when it will be on duty with NATO's Very High Readiness Joint Task Force (VJTF)," says the Centre for Eastern Studies analysis.

"The Bundeswehr will only have one fully modernized division available by 2027, and a further two by 2031. It would thus only be able to permanently deploy one brigade in Lithuania on a rotational basis by around 2026."

All of the current battle groups in the region are multinational formations. Canada's Defence Minister Anita Anand has said other nations supporting the Canadian-led operation in Latvia are being consulted about what they might contribute.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Minister of Defence Anita Anand speak with Canadian troops deployed on Operation Reassurance as he visits the Adazi Military base in Adazi, Latvia, on March 8, 2022. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

The Canadian military's operational commander, Vice-Admiral Bob Auchterlonie, said Canada is trying to boost the force in Latvia in tandem with its allies.

"We are working with the U.K. and the Germans on schedule, and we're working with Latvia on a number of things required to actually get there," Auchterlonie said in a recent interview with CBC News.

In recent months, Lithuania and Estonia in particular have complained about the plan adopted at the Madrid NATO Summit. They say they don't want their supporting nations (Germany and the U.K.) to simply rush troops into the countries in the event of an emergency. They want real brigades stationed on their soil, not paper ones.

Auchterloine said Canada is also trying to decide how many troops should be stationed in Latvia on a rotational basis — and how many could be rushed in through what could be contested waters and airspace in the event of a conflict with Russia.

And there's another problem, according to the Centre for Eastern Studies report.

"Despite ongoing diplomatic efforts, none of the Baltic states is in a position to provide the infrastructure necessary to station such forces in the near future," says the report. "The training grounds and barracks infrastructure is insufficient and needs to be significantly developed."

Allies have time to prepare: Auchterlonie

Lithuania has said it will make all of the relevant investments by 2026. Estonia just finished negotiations in London last fall to make that happen.

Auchterlonie said Canada is facing the same space crunch in Latvia. Camp Adazi outside of Riga, where the battle group is housed, is "busting at the seams," adding more tanks and troops is impossible at the moment and a brigade "simply won't fit," he said.

The allies, he added, have a bit of time.

"The Russians are fully committed to Ukraine. In terms of threat immediately, is there an immediate threat of Russia heading this way? I'd say that, you know, our allies in the Baltic agree that probably that threat is slightly diminished now," Auchterlonie said.

If the crisis in the region escalates, he said, allies will want to make sure there are forces available.

"But it's not going to happen today," he added. "It's not going to happen tomorrow."


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.


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.

Become a CBC Account Holder

Join the conversation  Create account

Already have an account?