OTTAWA – On a recent day in Latvia, a group of Canadian soldiers left a military base near the capital, Riga. The column drove about 30 kilometers where they lined up and at some point fought back a simulated attack before packing and returning home.
Although it was a staple of Canadian military training in normal times, this particular exercise was unusual in that most of the other activities of the Canadian forces at home and abroad have been suspended or scaled back in recent months due to COVID-19.
In fact, everything about Canada’s three-year mission in Latvia is unusual today, in part because little has actually changed.
Those on the frontline say this reflects how the mission’s goal – to defend Eastern Europe against Russian aggression – is arguably more relevant than ever because of fears that Moscow would try to capitalize on the pandemic to advance its own agenda.
“It is very important to maintain that presence because we have not seen any reduction in Russian troops,” Latvian Foreign Minister Edgars Rinkevics said in an interview with The Canadian Press.
“There is still a situation going on. Yes, it is probably not as tense as it used to be. … But at the same time, we are in a situation where we should not relax and not have to sit back. That’s something the alliance understands and our Canadian friends understand. ‘
Canada has 540 troops in Latvia, at the core of a 1,500-strong multinational combat group created by the NATO military alliance three years ago. Similar battle groups led by Britain, Germany and the United States have been formed in Estonia, Lithuania and Poland, respectively.
The battle groups emerged after Russia annexed Crimea from Ukraine in 2014 and began to support separatist forces in the eastern regions of Ukraine. This raised concerns that the Kremlin could make similar efforts against the Baltic States and other parts of Eastern Europe.
The battle groups are designed to defend against a Russian invasion, but their small size would almost certainly overwhelm them in real war. Instead, their main use is to deter Russian aggression, with the idea that an attack on one would attract all of NATO.
The COVID-19 pandemic has forced Canadian forces to suspend or scale back operations around the world, including in Ukraine and Iraq, where the military has trained local forces. Thousands of military personnel have been told to stay at home in Canada.
At the same time, Canadian military commanders warned early on in the pandemic that potential opponents could try to take advantage of COVID-19 by striking while governments around the world are being distracted by the pandemic.
The Canadian-led combat group in Latvia has also been forced to change some of its practices because of COVID-19. These include physical distance, washing hands and having 60 soldiers go through their base, Camp Adazi, to disinfect surfaces every two hours.
Large gatherings such as military parades have also been suspended, while training drills that once involved Canadian troops and other members of the NATO battle group interacting with locals are now avoiding the public.
“But we’re getting out,” said Colonel Eric Laforest, the commander of the Latvian Task Force, with troops from eight other NATO countries. “The training continues as you would suspect with the entire nine-nation battle group and the training continues as planned.
Commanders have also decided to continue plans to replace Canadian troops currently in Latvia with a new contingent in mid-July. Unlike in Ukraine, where a small force holds the fort until COVID-19 ends, there are no plans to scale back the mission in Latvia.
“It was clear from my point of view as commander here that we could not change our format,” Laforest said in an interview.
“We sent back proposals to Ottawa about what a changed mission might look like, but they were rejected very quickly. Everyone realized that this mission is different and we are here for the long haul and we can even sustain the operation despite this COVID-limited environment. ”
That decision was welcomed by the Latvian government, which is concerned about the message that a cut would send to Russia.
“It is very important that the size of the Canadian-led battle group does not change, as that would give the impression that our alliance is changing its policy,” said Rinkevics. “That may give the impression that (Russia) can try our borders one more time.”
Canada is committed to leading the battle group in Latvia until at least March 2023.
NATO and European officials have accused Russia of testing the willingness of the military alliance during COVID-19, especially in the early days of the pandemic, when the country had only a small number of positive cases.
British warships overshadowed seven Russian ships crossing the Channel and the North Sea in March. NATO intercepted several Russian military aircraft as they approached Allied airspace. There have also been reports of an increase in Russian misinformation.
Still, Russia has been hit hard by COVID-19 ever since, with over 300,000 positive cases. That is the second highest number of cases in one country after the United States. Nearly 3,000 people in Russia have died from the respiratory disease.
However, Rinkevics emphasized the importance of maintaining the combat group, especially as Russia continued to conduct exercises on its side of the Latvian border despite COVID-19.
“It is very important to maintain that presence because we have not seen any reduction in Russian troops,” he said. “We’re not out of the woods at all.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published on May 21, 2020.