By Scott Taylor
Back in July, when Canada announced it would be sending troops into Latvia, the tub-thumping Colonel Blimps popped their pacemakers. This was the stuff they have been longing for, a throwback to the good old Cold War days: A chance to square off once again with those nasty Russkies.
Since Canada withdrew from the international intervention in Afghanistan in the spring of 2014, the military has dropped out of the media spotlight. Many of the warmongers felt that the Canadian Armed Forces needed a high-profile mission to justify increased procurement budgets. The idea of deploying a contingent of Canadian soldiers along the Latvian–Russian border to contain the supposed naked aggression of President Vladimir Putin seemed like a godsend.
The rah-rah jingoistic pundits breathlessly wrote that Canadian soldiers were being deployed along NATO’s “northern flank” as if the alliance was already engaged in a full-scale war with Russia. It is true that when Ukraine devolved into a bloody civil war in 2014, Russian President Vladimir Putin sent Russian troops into the Crimea to reinforce those already stationed there under an existing lease agreement.
Fearful the new pro-Western regime in Kiev might revoke the lease and thus deny Russia its longstanding major naval base in the Black Sea, Putin held a referendum in the Crimea. The majority of the ethnic-Russian population voted to secede and Putin formally annexed the territory.
This tiny territorial grab then became the cornerstone of NATO’s accusations that Putin is bent on nothing less than world domination. One problem with that theory is the fact that two other pro-Russian breakaway provinces — Donetsk and Luhansk — had also staged referendums on secession and voted overwhelmingly to leave Ukraine and join the Russian Federation. Despite these results, Putin did not gobble up these provinces.
Instead, Russia is insisting that both warring Ukrainian factions adhere to the Minsk II ceasefire agreement, with an eventual course that Donetsk and Luhansk rejoin a Ukrainian federation. But, of course, that does not sound as frightening as depicting Putin in 2016 as the new Adolf Hitler in 1939, poised to conquer the free world.
The NATO plan will see a total of some 4,000 soldiers from four member states deployed into Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia on a rotational, non-permanent basis. Of that number, Canada is to commit a combat contingent of 450 soldiers to Latvia. These troops are to be rotated in and out of the Baltic on six-month or one-year tours, indefinitely. For those familiar with just how tiny Canada’s combat cupboard really is, this means that nearly one-third of our infantry capability will either be deployed, training for deployment, or just returned from Latvia at any given time.
If Canada does commit to a similar-sized mission in Mali, as they are expected to announce any day now, that will tie down two-thirds of Canada’s primary combat force, excluding the ongoing commitment to northern Iraq.
While the good news is that the Baltic region is not a “front” at all and there is no imminent danger of Russia starting a shooting war there anytime soon, the bad news is that after the initial two-day artificial euphoria of deploying face-to-face with the Russian juggernaut, our soldiers will become bored gormless.
You can only patrol the Russian border so many times and conduct rapid reaction drills to perfection before you realize that you are a hell of a long way from your home and family and, oh yeah, the Russians aren’t coming.
The good news for the Latvians is that this token contribution of a few hundred Canadian soldiers will create a mini-economic boom. The Canadian defence budget will absorb the cost of building or refurbishing all the necessary facilities to house a mini-battalion of soldiers. This will create construction and service jobs in the local economy, and I have it on good authority from a Latvian colleague that the women there are keen on the prospect of landing themselves a Canadian husband.
Regretfully for those Colonel Blimps who wish it were so, this just ain’t your father’s Cold War.