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Trudeau pledges more troops to Latvia, but mum on permanent NATO presence in Baltics

Latvian Prime Minister Krisjanis Karins takes part in an interview with The Canadian Press at the Chateau Laurier in Ottawa on Thursday, May 12, 2022. Latvia's Prime Minister is in Ottawa today seeking Canada's support for an expanded, permanent NATO force in his country and fellow Baltic states Lithuania and Estonia. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

OTTAWA — Prime Minister Justin Trudeau emerged from a private huddle with his Latvian counterpart on Thursday with a promise to bolster Canada’s military presence by deploying more Canadian Armed Forces officers to the Baltic state.

Trudeau did not, however, grant the top request from Latvian Prime Minister Krišjānis Kariņš: throwing Canada’s clear support behind calls for dramatically expanded and permanent NATO forces in Latvia and fellow Baltic states Lithuania and Estonia.

“We do have to reassess the risk posture and how much we need to stand together against potential Russian incursions and aggression,” Trudeau told reporters following his meeting with Kariņš. “And that is a conversation that we are having.”

Kariņš had gone into his closed-door meeting with Trudeau hoping to press the need for a dramatically enhanced military presence in the Baltics to counter any Russian perceptions of NATO weakness in the area.

Canada currently has nearly 700 troops leading a NATO battlegroup in Latvia, one of four such forces in the Baltics and Poland created in 2016 to deter and slow any Russian attack. The alliance is planning four more in Bulgaria, Hungary, Romania and Slovakia

In an interview with The Canadian Press ahead of his meeting with Trudeau, Kariņš said the Canadians are performing admirably alongside counterparts from nine other alliance members, and that his country is grateful for their presence.

Yet he argued the Canadian-led battlegroup in his country, as well as those in Lithuania and Estonia, were created in a different context, when war with Russia seemed an unlikely scenario, and that Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine has changed all calculations.

The battlegroups have been billed as “tripwires,” with the aim of making the Kremlin think twice before launching an attack as doing so would bring a unified response from the whole of the 30-member NATO military alliance.

Kariņš appeared to agree with experts who have long warned that these tripwires are more like speed bumps that would do little to stop Russia from rolling through the Baltics before NATO can respond, a situation that he says is now unacceptable. 

“What we see in Ukraine, and the way Russia is waging war … means that this strategy needs to be adjusted,” he said.

“Where the Russian military goes, not only is civilian infrastructure destroyed, but civilians are shot, maimed, murdered, raped, tortured, deported, killed. That means we need to have a more robust position in the Baltics to prevent an attack from occurring in the first place.”

Kariņš and his counterparts from neighbouring Estonia and Lithuania have since called for NATO to dramatically increase the size and capabilities of the battlegroups in their three countries by adding more troops and equipment.

The Latvian prime minister specifically called for “division-level defence” in each country that would include adding radars, anti-air and anti-missile defences and other capabilities. That would represent potentially thousands more troops across the region.

He also asked that the forces be made permanent, which is not currently the case. Canada’s mission was recently extended to March 2025 after several previous extensions. He said the move would send “a very clear signal to Moscow.”

“The signal that Moscow has to understand is not that they would be punished for entering (Latvia),” he said. “But if they entered, they would fail from the first minute. So not from the first week or the first month, but from the very first minute.”

Latvia is not necessarily looking for Canada to provide the additional needed troops, he added, but for the government to add its voice to those pushing for an expanded, permanent NATO presence in the Baltics when alliance leaders meet in Spain next month.

Trudeau acknowledged the need to “recalculate” NATO’s previous assumptions and what it considers acceptable with regards to an attack on the Baltics, noting the reports of mass atrocities by Russian troops in places like Bucha and Mariupol in Ukraine.

But he wouldn’t say whether Canada supports dramatically expanding the battlegroups and making them permanent.

The Canadian prime minister instead announced the pending deployment of one general and six staff officers from the Armed Forces to a NATO headquarters in Ādaži, near the Latvian capital of Riga, where they would help co-ordinate alliance activities across the Baltics.

“This is something Latvia had actually asked Canada to provide to continue assisting in the region,” Trudeau said. “Together, through our collective strength, we will continue to defend against threats to democracy and global stability.”

The Russian military has reportedly suffered significant casualties during its invasion of Ukraine, raising questions about its capacity to engage in a broader conflict with NATO. Some have also warned more NATO troops on its border could provoke Moscow.

But Kariņš said Russia is the provocateur with its invasion of Ukraine, and that because Russian President Vladimir Putin’s decision to attack defied all logic, it is impossible to rule out a potential expansion of the conflict into the Baltics if he sees the region as vulnerable.

“What you need to rule out is that it could in any way succeed.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 12, 2022.

Lee Berthiaume, The Canadian Press

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