By Scott Taylor
It was with little fanfare and even less drama that the first Canadian contingent deployed to Latvia returned home to Edmonton last month. This 450 strong battle group based on the first Battalion, Princess Patricia’s Light Infantry (PPCLI) have now been fully replaced by members of the New Brunswick based, Second Battalion, Royal Canadian Regiment (2RCR).
Canadian troops first deployed into Latvia over seven months ago as part of NATO’s Enhanced Forward Presence initiative which is theoretically aimed at deterring Russian military aggression in the Baltic States.
At the time it was announced, Canada’s participation in this show of strength was breathlessly touted by the usual pro-war tub thumpers, who are all too eager to revisit the good old days of the Cold War.
Some jingoistic pundits even referred to the Baltic States as “NATO’s northern flank” as if somehow World War Three had already begun.
The western media portrayed Russian President Vladimir Putin as a lunatic bent on world domination, and long planned, annual Russian military manoeuvres in western Russia and Belarus were portrayed as the harbingers of an imminent invasion.
Thus, the brave soldiers of the Princess Patricia’s could easily be forgiven if they were a little apprehensive about being deployed to the very border of Putin’s evil empire.
Seven uneventful months later and now these 450 soldiers have returned to their families, while the next rotation of elite Canadian combat soldiers begin their own seven month extended separation from their loved ones.
Unlike the Cold War years when Canada permanently stationed a mechanized Brigade Group and three fighter squadrons at advance bases in Germany, the Latvia deployment is to be ‘rotational’. This means that unlike the Cold War era where families were posted to Germany along with the military personnel, now Latvia deployed soldiers will be away from their spouses and kids for lengthy periods of time.
For the decade long commitment in Afghanistan, the normal length of deployment to Kandahar was six months, but since this was an actual shooting war troops remained focused on the task at hand while deployed in theatre.
With Latvia, there is not going to be any shooting war and the top NATO military commanders know this.
I say this with certainty because of the very composition of the forces which were deployed as part of the Enhanced Forward Presence. The Battle Group commanded by the Canadians and anchored by our nucleus of 450 infantry soldiers, is augmented by contingents from Spain, Italy, Poland, Slovenia and Albania bringing the total number to approximately 1200. Later this year, this will grow by another 200 international personnel when they are joined by units from Slovakia and the Czech Republic.
If there was any real threat of the Russian military juggernaut erupting over the Latvian border, no NATO commander in his right mind would want to be saddled with a polygot collection of penny packet national contingents. It makes no tactical sense.
What does make sense is from an economic perspective as all of the contributing countries are spending a portion of their own defence budgets to house and feed their troops in Latvia. Canada alone has budgeted $134 million annually for the Enhanced Forward Response.
The Latvian economy has been in a freefall since they joined the European Union in 2004, and it is estimated that there has been an exodus of more than 350,000 Latvians – economic refugees seeking employment - from a total population of just two million during that timeframe.
If the NATO alliance wants to shore up the economies of the struggling Baltic States, then we should do so in the form of an economic bailout and label it as such.
Instead we are committing resources from defence budgets to base these foreign troops in Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania to counter a non-existent threat from the Russian bogey-man.
As members of NATO, the three Baltic States are automatically guaranteed the Alliance’s collective defence of their sovereignty should they be attacked. In other words, there is no need for these 450 Canadian soldiers to spend extensive periods of time away from home – and that $134 million could be put to better use refurbishing bases or buying equipment here in Canada.