By Vincent J. Curtis
Before the July 10-11 NATO conference, Prime Minister Justine Trudeau let it be known that Canada planned to “extend its leadership” in Latvia for several more years. He would “deliver a strong message of solidarity” during a visit to that country.
Before the announcement, Canada was scheduled to end its commitment of 450 troops in Latvia in the spring of 2019. The new commitment will see a presence of 540 troops until at least 2023.
Presently, Canada spends 134 million dollars per year on the Latvian deployment. For that much dough, it is fair to ask: how many thousand medium- and heavy-machine guns have been sent to Latvia? How many thousand medium and heavy anti-tank weapons? How many hundreds of guns? What about air defence against helicopters and fast-movers?
Has ammunition sufficient to sustain thirty days of heavy, continuous battle been stockpiled? How many battle positions have been surveyed, roughed in, and camouflaged? How much digging has been done to harden Latvia’s defenses from a surprise bolt from the blue?
Has serious war-gaming of a Russian invasion taken place?
Those are some of the measures that take the Russian imperial threat seriously. Instead we see Canada contributing half a battalion to a “battle group” that includes soldiers from Albania, Slovakia, Italy, Poland, Spain, and the Czech Republic. The best will in the world couldn’t hold together a “battle group” so composed that was under serious onslaught.
We see press releases that speak of the creation of a ‘divisional’ headquarters for the three NATO “battle groups” operating in the three Baltic States. It is supposed to be established in Riga, the capital of Latvia; and Canada’s contribution would be of staff officers.
It’s great that NATO would deploy a forward divisional headquarters, except that it quickly will morph from a tactical entity to a political-bureaucratic assemblage, like NATO headquarters itself, or some UN peacekeeping mission HQ. Latvia would be crazy to subordinate its national defence to a NATO forward headquarters that would have to ask the permission of main NATO HQ to fire back. It is quite possible that in the midst of confusion, NATO will wait long enough for serious, tactically devastating, inroads to have occurred in Latvia before issuing the order to resist.
With the drive to bureaucratize NATO’s commitment to the Baltic States, the effort takes on the appearance of a UN peacekeeping mission, which tries to crush the problem under the weight of time and bureaucratic processes. This presents cobwebs against a real onslaught. Peacekeeping missions work when each antagonist lacks the strength to overwhelm the other, and both sides are looking for a face-saving way out of a trial of strength – like Sinai from 1956 to 1967, or Cyprus from 1964 to the present. In Afghanistan, the Taliban lack the power to overwhelm tiny ISAF, and they aren’t winning the endurance battle either.
Russia, however, is a powerful country, and it would be easy for her, at a time of her choosing, to project her military strength against the weak Baltic States. That she has not yet is due to the decisions made by President Vladimir Putin, who isn’t going to risk his prestige on anything less than a sure thing.
Building up NATO’s combat power generally is one form of deterrence against attack. Granting Russia and Putin the prestige he thinks they deserve could be another, indirect, form, and that explains why Trump met with Putin in Helsinki right after castigating NATO countries about inadequate spending.
The NATO effort in the Baltics cannot crush a problem under the weight of bureaucracy. Its purpose must be to decline battle – by turning the Baltic States into such tough and time-consuming nut to crack that their defences won’t be tested. A real sign of leadership by Canada in the Baltics would be to demand more firepower and less bureaucracy.