By Richard Forbes.
Featured image via the Canadian Armed Forces.
As the punishing summer heat brings a severe, record-breaking drought across the country, the common Canadian (in his or her natural environment) can be expected to reach for a spatula, flipping some burgers over a sizzling, open flame. Water advisories, drought reports and fire bans have been declared all across Ontario, Quebec, the B.C interior, the Maritimes – i.e., pretty much everywhere. Many Canadians, hardly distinguishable from first degree burn victims at this point, may suffer from a midsummer apathy; paying more attention to the ‘little things’ like cottage traffic or the latest weather reports, rather than the latest international news.
Effectively absent from every Canadian’s mind is an active concern for the geopolitics of the Baltics, save for those civil servants at Global Affairs Canada now reeling over the possibility this past week’s events might have signaled the abrupt and untimely return of cold war politics in some shape or form.
Wrapping up over the weekend, the NATO Summit in Warsaw, Poland proved to be a flashpoint in a year of growing international instability and political uncertainty; world leaders expressed their combined fears of Russian aggression into the Baltic states and vowed to expand their military presence in the region. Starting in the new year, the US, Britain and Germany have already agreed to station battalions on a rotational basis: the US in Poland, Britain in Estonia and Germany in Lithuania. It was then later announced this month Canada would provide the basis for a fourth battalion to be stationed in Latvia.
Canada’s contribution is what some are calling (rather vaguely) a “framework coalition” – effectively that means Canada will act as the ‘core’ – some 450 soldiers – of a multi-national battalion with as many as a 1000 soldiers, bolstering NATO’s presence in Latvia and strengthening its defences. The prime minister defended the new mission to reporters in Warsaw; he especially faced rumours Canada had been reluctantly forced by the White House and other NATO allies into playing a bigger role. “Leading efforts in Latvia,” Trudeau said, “was exactly something we saw as an opportunity for Canada to contribute security and stability, defence and deterrence at a time where that’s very much necessary.”
Moscow via Kirill Kalinin, an embassy spokesman to Canada, responded with a classic Kremlin spin: positioning any future military action on Russia’s part as a retaliation to the west rather than a move that was planned in advance; accusing western leaders of “saber-rattling,” where, in fact, it was western leaders accusing Russia of saber-rattling. “Russia is in no way presenting a threat to anyone,” read the statement released Friday, adding most forebodingly: “we see this is a challenge and we will find necessary means to respond to it.”
The Russian embassy’s statement is, of course, pure, unadulterated poppycock. The question of whether the threat posed by Russia is real or not, has been all but answered by the past and present behaviour and the neo-soviet aspirations of Russian President Vladimir Putin. Reports have suggested the Kremlin, the same Kremlin that invaded and then annexed the Crimean peninsula in Ukraine in 2014, is mobilizing heavy armor units and troops throughout Kaliningrad, a Russian enclave positioned strategically between Poland and Lithuania, with access to the Baltic Sea. Intelligence also suggests Russia intends to arm Kaliningrad with an arsenal of nuclear-capable Iskander missiles by 2019.
A 2016 study from global policy think tank, the RAND corporation, concluded Russian forces could mobilize and overtake the key parts of the Baltic states within 36 to 60 hours against NATO’s current presence in the region due to their superior ground and air support and tactical mobility. In response, its authors propose the prepositioning of 6-7 NATO battalions in Eastern Europe rather than the four which NATO ultimately announced. Also worth mentioning: the Lativan capital of Riga, where Canada’s battalion has been assigned, was predominately the first strategic target of the simulated Russian overrun.
NATO’s response, to conduct sophisticated drills and war games in Poland (the “Anakonda-16” exercise) last month, and now, a prepositioning of allied forces through the Baltics is simply meeting demands from worried Eastern European officials for a greater NATO military presence – the very same NATO allies who’ve been promised an international western effort to deter and defend against any Russian offensives. Meeting these reasonable calls for intervention and help is thus, not only a matter of regional stability and peace, but of international obligations between NATO allies, including Canada.
Letting Eastern Europe down now would undoubtedly answer the lingering questions over the transatlantic alliance’s relevance with a big, fat, irrefutable “no” which would be both embarrassing and potentially quite damaging to the political and military arrangement that’s safeguarded the western world for three generations. But despite the hysteria some have painted surrounding these scenes of escalation, what we are witnessing is not the return of the “cold war” per se but something different, something less complicated and divorced from the ideological background that pitted the west against the east during the last century. Rather, what we’re facing now is simply the anticipated wrath of blatant jingoism on Putin’s part, plain and simple – his hopes of enlarging Russia and raising its morale and its nationalist pride for a new generation of Russians. We mustn’t let our fears of a destabilized world overstate our current predicament.
Back home in Canada, however, it’s hard to describe just how little attention Canada’s announcement has received without using the term, “blackout”; far from making its way to dinner table conversations, the proposed Latvia mission has seemingly whizzed past the media’s radar, leaving faster than it arrived. What little discussion has arisen over social and print media has been preoccupied mostly with the question of whether parliament should’ve been consulted about the mission. Naturally, parliament is on holidays for the summer at the moment, but in theory (as critics have pointed out), the governor general on the advice of the prime minister could summon parliament at any time. But critics who wish to see the Latvia mission receive the trial it deserves should be careful of what they wish for: for the same reasons the Latvia mission has received little attention now, an emergency summons during the summer would not receive the same kind of public reception among Canadians as it would in September.
Granted, a House of Commons debate is not strictly necessary (as far as the constitution is concerned, the federal cabinet holds the power to approve new missions,) but having said that, the critics do make a good point: the Liberals ought to take a pro-active approach in getting parliament involved with the conversation surrounding Eastern Europe. Better to be seen encouraging dialogue rather than running away from it. Indeed, it would be in keeping with past conventions and Trudeau’s own calls for a more “open parliament” for parliament to be consulted ex post facto in the fall before the new mission is set to begin.
While September is months away, it’s not hard to speculate what the opposition will say once the House returns. Cabinet can expect to face criticism along familiar partisan lines. The Tories, who blundered away ten years in government without bolstering defense spending, will likely call the deployment ‘reluctant’ and ‘insufficient’ (with their tongue firmly planted in their cheek) – offering as much faux outrage as they can muster that Canada’s contribution has only come after first being asked, while forming a ‘framework’ battalion rather than a full battalion in its own right. The Liberals might respond in kind by comparing their framework battalion to the UK’s own commitment, for starters.
Meanwhile, the NDP will predictably quote Foreign Minister Stéphane Dion’s own frustrations that these NATO operations will draw resources from Canada’s peacekeeping efforts in Africa. They might also be expected to condemn the open-ended nature of the Latvia mission, as they did with Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria. (This latter point could be especially pertinent because the 1997 NATO-Russia Founding Act is popularly understood to ban permanent NATO missions in Eastern Europe.) But nevermind that the worst offenders in the “open-ended missions” category are sadly today’s UN peacekeeping missions…
These criticisms, however convincing, are but the products of their own parties’ delusions and their traditional appeals to ‘golden eras’ that may never have existed – for the Tories, it’s a betrayal of their memory of Canada as a proud military superpower, while for the NDP, boots on the ground in the Baltics leaves them desperately yearning for a pre-Bosnia peacekeeping commitment from Canada. Neither of these far-flung hopes for a better defense policy, however, can realistically detract from the fact that our current situation with Latvia is as good an opportunity as ever to meet the country’s international military commitments and help assuage the reasonable fears of the Baltic peoples.
While this new mission that Prime Minister Trudeau finds himself embarking on to defend Eastern Europe is (quite literally) the last objective his campaign platform promised, rather than the first (peacekeeping, under “Security and Opportunities” if you were wondering) – it’s still a defensible and admirable position. It’s a shame, however, that Canadians, stuck in a summer la-la-land, appear not to care. One can only hope that as the House returns in September, a better conversation can be had across the country over the geopolitics we now face and the brave new mission it’s inspired.
Richard Forbes studied Political Science and Philosophy at the University of Waterloo. Winner of the Peter Woolstencroft Prize in Canadian Politics (2015).
When asked (usually by confused old women) what ‘one does exactly’ with said degree, he laughs and politely declines to answer. A perfect night for him involves a cup of Lady Grey, writing and a re-run of Yes Minister.