As Russia masses its troops, Canadian soldiers in Eastern Europe keep watch

Canadian troops in the Baltic state of Latvia are just 300 kilometres from the border with Russia, as tens of thousands of Russian troops mobilize and take a combat-ready stance to the south. On a visit to the base, some told CBC News they're keeping a close eye on developments.

Battle group in Latvia is Canada's largest overseas military presence

Canadian soldiers are seen recently at Camp Ādaži, near Riga, Latvia, as part of NATO military drills. Most of the soldiers are members of the Royal 22nd Regiment based out of Valcartier, Que. (Stephanie Jenzer/CBC)

From an elevated bunker overlooking a mock battlefield, Canadian Lt.-Col. John Benson has an excellent view of the NATO armoured vehicles spinning their machine gun turrets and manoeuvring through the mud and snow.

He likes what he sees.

"We have absolutely no doubt that we are able to accomplish the tasks that are given to us," Benson told CBC News during an exercise dubbed "Winter Shield" at Camp Ādaži, about an hour outside the Latvian capital, Riga.

Benson is the battle group commander in charge of the 500 Canadians stationed here, Canada's largest overseas military presence. Most are members of the Royal 22nd Regiment based out of Valcartier, Que.

The base, which hosts soldiers from 13 NATO countries, is roughly 300 kilometres from the border with Russia and is considered a key part of the alliance's eastern Europe defence.

Lieut.-Col. John Benson is the commander of the Canadian battle group near Riga. (Stephanie Jenzer/CBC)

The Canadians stationed here are monitoring the build-up of as many as 100,000 combat-ready Russian troops to the south, on the border with Ukraine. Belarus, which shares a border with Latvia, has also just started new military exercises along its frontier with Ukraine.

Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg and other NATO foreign ministers are meeting in Riga this week to discuss how to respond to the Russian build-up and any potential attack.

Both Stoltenberg and Canadian Foreign Minister Melanie Joly were at the base Monday in advance of the NATO meetings.

If Russia makes a military move against Ukraine, "there will be consequences, and there will be costs," Stoltenberg told CBC News, emphasizing that "Ukraine is a close NATO partner."   

WATCH | Ukraine seeks Canada's help at NATO meeting:

Ukraine asks Canada to strengthen its defences during NATO meeting

1 year ago
Duration 2:00
Ukraine’s foreign minister has asked Canada to help strengthen its defences amid escalating tensions with Russia, while NATO warns Russia will face “high impact” sanctions if it attacks.

The crucial distinction is that Ukraine is not a NATO "member," and while its defence is seen as key to European security, the alliance is under no legal obligation to respond to a Russian attack.

This has created a bit of a guessing game among many, including Canadian soldiers here, about precisely what consequences Russia would face if hostilities broke out, and what role NATO troops in the region might be called upon to play.

No wish 'for anything to spark off'

Russian troops took over and illegally annexed the Crimean peninsula from Ukraine in 2014. Shortly afterward, Russia began providing support to separatists in Eastern Ukraine, helping fuel a conflict that has lasted seven years and claimed more than 13,000 lives.

This past spring, Russian forces staged another troop mobilization but backed off after President Vladimir Putin secured a meeting with U.S. President Joe Biden. But U.S. officials have warned Russia's build-up in recent weeks appears more organized and combat-ready.

Canadian soldiers in Latvia told CBC News they are following developments closely and wondering how events could affect their deployment. 

"Among the ranks, we do shoot the breeze a bit in the shacks and talk about possibilities," said Lieut. Alexander Boom, a transport officer with the Canadian battle group. "But it wouldn't be a decision that comes down to us."

Boom also emphasized that the soldiers, "would never, ever wish for anything to spark off."

Latvian armoured vehicles take cover as part of an exercise dubbed Winter Shield. The soldiers in yellow vests are acting as observers. (Stephanie Jenzer/CBC)

Maj. Jocelyn Roy, a mechanized Infantry company commander, said whatever happens, he's confident Canada's military could do whatever is asked of it.

"We do follow [the politics]," he said. "But at my level, at the company level, I focus on my job, which is making sure my company is always ready to fight and ready to operate with our partner nations." 

Benson said the Canadian battle group closely monitors the situation.

"We currently have not had to change our situation, our alert state," he said. "But again, the best deterrence is always demonstrating our interoperability and demonstrating constantly that we can go out and train."

'We're a strong ally'

Canada's other major European military presence is farther south, in Ukraine, as part of a 200-member operation dubbed Unifier.

A soldier holds a Canadian flag at a welcoming ceremony for dignitaries at the Canadian base in Latvia on Monday. (Stephanie Jenzer/CBC)

Stationed near Lviv, in western Ukraine, more than 1,000 kilometres from the ongoing conflict with Russia-backed separatists in Donbas, the Canadian mission has helped train more than 10,000 Ukrainian soldiers over the last seven years.

Since the recent Russian build-up, Great Britain has indicated it may beef up its troop presence in Eastern Europe, and the U.S. has indicated more military aid for Ukraine is also under consideration.

NATO secretary general Jens Stoltenberg speaks to the media in front of a Canadian LAV-6 armoured vehicle. (Stephanie Jenzer/CBC)

Foreign Minister Joly touted the Latvian exercises as "a success" but refused to speculate about an increase in Canada's presence in Ukraine.

"We've always been there to support Ukrainians," said Joly. "We're a strong ally, and that's why we're monitoring the situation very closely." 

Foreign Minister Melanie Joly meets Canadian soldiers at the NATO base. (Stephanie Jenzer/CBC)

Putin accused NATO on Tuesday of building up its military infrastructure in Ukraine and said Russia is concerned about "military drills" near its borders.

It's not clear if he meant the Canadian-led exercise in Latvia, but Benson suggested Canada's posture remains strictly defensive.

"The enhanced forward presence in Latvia has been here for almost five years now," he said. "It's a consistent, stable contribution. There's been no significant changes to what we do here in Latvia."


Chris Brown

Foreign Correspondent

Chris Brown is a foreign correspondent based in the CBC’s London bureau. Previously in Moscow, Chris has a passion for great stories and has travelled all over Canada and the world to find them.