Op Reassurance in Latvia and Lithuania
© 2018 FrontLine (Vol 15, No 6)

“The Russians are Coming” is no laughing matter! Some arrived years ago – Georgia in 2008 and Crimea in 2014 – and they’re showing no signs of leaving, sticking to the pretence that they invaded to protect ethnic Russian minorities and want to keep doing so.
With Russia’s activities along its borders, cyber attacks, night movements of military equipment (observed by satellite), and the recent widely-condemned seizure of three Ukrainian naval vessels in an international strait, it’s no wonder Russia’s neighbours and Western allies are concerned, notably the three Baltic states of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia.

Ever since the three former Soviet republics joined NATO in 2004, they’ve been an irritating reminder to Russian President Vladimir Putin of what used to be – and possibly what could be again. NATO’s response has been to establish enhanced Forward Protection (eFP) defensive battle groups, through which the allies rotate personnel and equipment. Canada currently has assets with the eFPs in Lithuania and Latvia.

It’s only 630 kilometres from Lithuania’s southern border with Poland to Estonia’s northern coast on the Gulf of Finland, so the eFP fighter aircraft at Šiauliai air force base in north-central Lithuania near the Latvian border (including six Royal Canadian Air Force F-18 Hornets) can provide a tactical umbrella anywhere in the region within minutes after take-off. Germany is the command country in that eFP. Britain and the United States respectively command the eFPs in Estonia and Poland.

@JustinTrudeau tweeted this photo on 10 July 2018: “A very warm welcome in Riga today from PM @MarisKucinskis, as we paid respects to fallen soldiers, and sat down to work on building stronger economic ties between our countries and a stronger #NATO alliance.

With a long history of foreign domination and a 214 kilometre border with Russia, Latvia has been host to more than 1,100 soldiers from Canada and six other countries (Albania, the Czech Republic, Italy, Poland, Slovenia and Spain) since June 2017 as NATO’s enhanced Forward Protection (eFP) presence.

The Canadian Armed Forces contingent of 455 mainly Army personnel, includes headquarters staff, an infantry company with Light Armoured Vehicles, military police, and logistical and communications support.

Based in Camp Ādaži, some 10 kilometres northeast of the capital, Riga – close to the Gulf of Riga and the approaches to the Baltic Sea – the battle group is currently commanded by LCol Steve MacBeth from the 1st Battalion of the Royal Canadian Regiment (CFB Petawawa). Originally scheduled to end in March 2019, Canadian involvement in Latvian has been extended by four more years.

18 Nov 2018 – Members of the Canadian Armed Forces servingwiththe eFP Battlegroup on parade in Centre Riga as part of the 100th Anniversary of the Independence of the Republic of Latvia. (Photo: Aviator Jérôme Lessard/Task Force Latvia)

Shortly after it went operational, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said during a media availability in Riga with his Latvian counterpart, Maris Kucinskis, that he hoped Russian President Vladimir Putin would get “the message […] that his actions in destabilizing and disregarding the international rules-based order that has been successfully underpinned by NATO amongst others over the past 75 years or so, is extremely important.” He also said he hoped “Russian will choose to become a more positive actor in world affairs.”

Subsequent events have demonstrated otherwise and, while the Baltic states obviously welcome such a commitment, the broader Operation Reassurance, which includes the eFP, is not without its critics at home. Some have questioned the fundamental need (even though many deployed personnel are said to be happy to be doing the job for which they train).

This criticism prompted Mr. Kārlis Eihenbaums, Latvia’s ambassador to Canada, to sit down with FrontLine for a conversion largely devoted to his homeland’s history and then to modern affairs.

He explained how many Latvians toward the end of World War II – unlike some of their countrymen conscripted into the German Waffen SS – chose a diametrically opposite and personally vulnerable stance. They protected local Jews, initially against the Germans and later against Russians. The fundamental message was that their aggressors would have to go through the Latvians first and that any such action would be costly.

A career diplomat whose many postings before Ottawa included four years as Latvia’s envoy in Israel, Eihenbaums agreed that the response to the invading forces (more than seven decades ago) could be seen as an analog for the Canadian-led eFP. In other words, any move against Latvia would be seen as a move against the alliance.

Mr. Kārlis Eihenbaums, Latvia’s ambassador to Canada, meets with Canadian troops in Edmonton before their deployment to Latvia.

Justifying Canada’s current involvement in Latvia, now well into its second year, requires understanding the republic’s history. Seven centuries of foreign rule first ended when Latvia declared independence after World War I. That survived a series of political upheavals until WWII when Latvia was forced under Soviet rule. Then Germany invaded, followed by Soviet reoccupation in 1944 and the advent of the Cold War.

That ended in 1991 with the collapse of the Soviet Union, but Latvians had already begun a peaceful campaign for a second bid at independence – in 1987. A Declaration on the Restoration of Indepen­dence followed in May 1990, and de facto independence was declared in August 1991.
The ensuing years, especially during Putin’s time in office, have seen a resurgence of expansionism which is increasingly worrisome to Latvia, with a population of only about two million and a 214 km border with its huge neighbour.

Despite foreign rule dating to the 13th century, Latvians managed to sustain their language and traditions. However, as a consequence of the Russian rule dating to the early 1700s and the subsequent reannex­ation, nearly 29% of its populace are ethnic Russians who continue to draw Putin’s attention with frequent allegations that Latvia discriminates against them.

What’s in all this for Russia? Crimea was annexed at Putin’s instigation, bolstered by an orchestrated referendum in which ethnic Russians in Ukraine figured heavily. Putin said the referendum complied with the principle of a people’s right of self-determination.

The annexation has been condemned as a violation, not only of international law, but also of Russia-signed agreements that were supposed to safeguard Ukraine’s territorial integrity.

Whether Russia’s suspension from the G8, and the imposition of targetted economic sanctions has been successful is clearly open to debate, especially given the recent naval interdiction.

Andriy Shevchenko, Ukraine's ambassador to Canada, says Russia had prepared for the escalation for months and now feel comfortable blockading the Kerch Strait in defiance of international condemnation. He says the obvious goal is to cut off critical Ukrainian export terminals on the Azov Sea but “I think we should also consider the message itself to Ukraine and free world itself: Russia is saying it will do whatever it chooses.”

Ambassador Eihenbaums considers the eFP one of the alliance’s most successful missions. “We feel much more stable as a people and also the NATO eastern flank is much more stable,” he says. “Ask our neighbouring countries which are not NATO members, like Sweden or Finland, what they think. […] They are very happy that Canadians are there.”

– Ken Pole is a contributing editor at FrontLine Magazine.