Troops in Latvia prepare for Russian exercise

OTTAWA — Canadian troops in Latvia will have front-row seats to a massive Russian military exercise this month that has set NATO on edge and sparked calls for calm across eastern Europe.

Scheduled to start Sept. 14 and run for a week, the so-called Zapad exercise is being billed as Russia’s largest war game since the end of the Cold War more than 25 years ago.

It’s also the first of its kind since NATO decided to send four brigades to eastern Europe to prevent further Russian aggression, after Moscow annexed Crimea and began to support separatist forces in Ukraine.

Canada is leading one of those multinational brigades, with 450 troops based in Latvia alongside counterparts from fellow NATO members Albania, Spain, Italy, Poland, and Slovenia.

Zapad has already caused jitters in eastern Europe, with Poland announcing this week that it will close the airspace on its border with Belarus — which is taking part in Zapad with Russia — for the entire month.

Karlis Eihenbaums, Latvia’s ambassador to Canada, said his countrymen are trying to “stay calm and carry on,” but he acknowledged that there are worries there, too.

“They’re trying to check our central nervous system,” Eihenbaums said of Russia, which he compared to a neighbourhood bully. “We are keeping a very close eye on the preparations for this exercise.”

NATO and the Canadian military have likewise said they plan to remain, in the words of one NATO official, “vigilant and alert,” but also “calm, balanced and measured.”

But Canadian Forces spokesman Col. Jay Janzen said Russia’s “lack of respect for the sovereignty of its neighbours,” including Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova, has created an atmosphere of distrust.

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