Propaganda and provocation: Russia scoffs at Canada's Baltic war games
Canada-led NATO battle group goes through first major exercise to test battle-readiness
A high-level Russian official is unimpressed with Canada's war games in the Baltics.
"There is no other way to interpret what's going on in the Baltic republics [than] as a very provocative action," Maria Zakharova, chief spokesperson for Russia's Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said in an interview with CBC News.
"How can that bring more stability to European security?" said Zakharova. "I cannot understand that. Nobody in Russia can understand that."
Russia's annexation of Crimea and its military support to separatists in eastern Ukraine spooked some Baltic republics and prompted the request for NATO to bolster its presence in the border region.
That led the Trudeau government to commit more than $350 million dollars to send Canadian troops to lead the NATO force in Latvia for three years.
Five other countries — Italy, Spain, Poland, Slovenia and Albania — are also part of Operation Reassurance.
The exercise they've been engaged in this past week — their first major one — is essential for testing their battle-readiness.
After five days and nights living out of a mud trench, the end is finally in sight for Maj. Chelsea Braybrook and the rest of Bravo Company.
"We're in the last phase now," said Braybrook, a member of the Edmonton-based Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry and one of 450 Canadian soldiers stationed here as part of the Canadian-led NATO battle group.
"I'd say we have at most another 48 hours of defensive operations," said Braybrook.
The aim of the exercise was to repel a conventional enemy attack with armour and infantry units and to hold a forested area about an hour's drive north of Latvia's capital.
Every member of Canada's battle group wears thick camouflage makeup on their faces.
Some hunker down in foxholes, listening to orders come in over the radio in the make-believe battle.
Others are perched nearby inside LAVs — light armoured vehicles — scanning the horizon for movement.
Cpl. James Thoman says the simulation has been intense even though it hasn't involved using live ammunition.
"It's real as it can be without rounds flying both ways," he said.
The enemy in this case is being role-played by their hosts — the Latvian military — and Canadian commanders say the exercise has fine-tuned communications and helped the multinational force work together.
"Although this team has been together for a very short period of time, what they have achieved so far is very impressive," said Brig.-Gen. Trevor Cadieu. As the senior Canadian officer at the certification exercise, it's his job to confirm to NATO command that the Canadian-led task force is battle-ready.
In the past, Russian officials have denied any ambitions to move into the Baltic states and said the expanded NATO presence along their eastern borders has only added to tension in the region.
Zakharova, known for her robust defense of Russian foreign policy, offered CBC News a more extensive explanation of Russia's opposition.
"We are not spreading all over the world. Why do you regard us as aggressors?" she said.
Russia's position, she said, is that NATO is wasting money putting troops in the border region when there are more serious common threats at hand.
"We're watching more and more terrorist attacks take place all over Europe," said Zakharova.
The NATO exercises, though, may pale in comparison to manoeuvres Russia has planned in its eastern region in mid-September.
Whereas NATO's exercises in three Baltic countries over the past month have featured roughly 5,000 troops, Zapad 2017 — Russia's war game — is expected to be an order of magnitude larger. There are estimates suggesting as many as 100,000 Russian troops will take part.
Some security analysts have raised red flags that Russia may use the Zapad exercise as a cover to make more territorial gains.
Zakharova calls that more fearmongering. It's just part of the "western propaganda" machine aimed against Russia, she said.