ĀDAŽI, Latvia — Justin Trudeau joined NATO allies Tuesday in staging a theatrical rebuke of Russia’s war on Ukraine from a heavily armoured war-games field and in a floodlit news conference from one of the alliance’s eastern European bases.
The prime minister promised Baltic leaders on a whirlwind trip to Latvia that Canada will stand with them to fight Russia’s military aggression against Ukraine and its cyberattacks on their countries.
Trudeau and NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg made clear that NATO’s purpose is defensive, but that the core NATO agreement — that an attack on one member is an attack on them all — is very much in play.
“We are here to protect every inch of allied territory, of Latvia and all other NATO countries,” Stoltenberg said at a joint news conference on the Ādaži military base northeast of Riga, Latvia.
The Norwegian politician’s voice thundered over a loudspeaker at a joint news conference with Trudeau and Defence Minister Anita Anand, along with the prime ministers of Spain and Latvia, Pedro Sánchez and Krišjānis Kariņš. The event was held outdoors in near-freezing temperatures as a steady snowfall dusted the politicians on their podiums, positioned in the foreground of more than a dozen tanks, heavy armour and other imposing military vehicles.
“This demonstrates, really, NATO solidarity,” Stoltenberg said, in case anyone missed the point.
“The purpose of that deterrence is not to provoke a war but to prevent a war. It is to preserve peace.”
Trudeau said Russian President Vladimir Putin made a mistake thinking Ukraine and NATO were weak and divided.
“He’s been shown how wrong he is,” Trudeau said. “Ukrainians are strong and courageous and standing up to defend their land. And NATO has never been more united and determined than we are now. I know I can speak for all NATO members when I say we will all abide by Article Five.”
Sanchez, echoing earlier remarks by Anand, tore a page from the Canadian feminist foreign policy play book and paid tribute to International Women’s Day.
“Eight March should have been a day of celebration of women and girls in Ukraine,” Sanchez said, adding that Putin’s “brutal aggression is forcing them to flee their country or fight for their lives.”
Sanchez said he wanted to “pay an homage today to all of them,” pledging NATO would stand by their side.
Earlier, the group drove over bumpy roads, dwarfed by tall coniferous trees to a NATO training ground called French Hill for a tour of a massive battlefield scattered with a dozen heavy tanks and artillery pieces on a base that was once a Cold War outpost of the former Soviet Union.
Canadian defence chief Gen. Wayne Eyre joined them for a tour and briefing on the war gaming.
Canada leads the NATO battle group in Latvia, which is part of its long-standing deterrence efforts against Russia — a mission that has taken on new significance in light of the Russian invasion.
It is one of four such efforts in the Baltics and Poland, designed to demonstrate the strength of the NATO alliance in the region against Russia.
Navigating dirt that was at times ankle deep, the entourage of politicians and military officials visited with soldiers from the 10 NATO countries that are stationed here.
“They see renewed purpose. It’s the front line of freedom,” Eyre said.
Trudeau asked questions of a Latvian commander from a hilltop bunker that overlooked the massive plain of rutted dirt.
Trudeau said that Canada’s mission in Latvia, dubbed Operation Reassurance, wasn’t set to be renewed until 2023, but given the Russian invasion in Ukraine, Canada was announcing a multi-year renewal immediately.
Trudeau arrived in Latvia in the wee hours of Tuesday before an early morning meeting with Kariņš. It was followed by an expanded teleconference with leaders from Baltic NATO members Estonia and Lithuania on what was the 13th day of the Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Trudeau said Russia has “weaponized” misinformation not only against Ukraine but in all “democracies around the West.”
“Quite frankly, you have been living not just with the military threat, not just with the history of occupation … but also, the daily use of propaganda and disinformation to try and undermine the democracy and the values you have,” Trudeau told the three Baltic leaders.
Putin takes great offence at the NATO buildup on his country’s borders. He has opposed NATO’s expansion into countries that were once in the Soviet sphere.
Ukraine is not a NATO member but was seeking membership in the 30-country transatlantic alliance as well as closer ties with the European Union. Russia annexed Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula in 2014 after the overthrow of the Kremlin-backed administration in Kyiv.
That marked the most significant breach of Europe’s borders since the Second World War — a milestone now eclipsed by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Trudeau said the ongoing show of unity among NATO allies and other democracies to back Ukraine is a critical part of bringing the crisis to a close.
Kariņš told Trudeau the Russian invasion did not succeed in “driving a wedge between Europe and North America, driving a wedge between NATO partners.” Instead, he said, “the exact opposite” happened and there has been a “coming together of minds.”
Trudeau told the Baltic leaders that Canada has the third largest population of Ukrainians in the world after Ukraine itself and Russia, “so we are deeply, deeply troubled and engaged by this conflict in Ukraine.”
“We are demonstrating that, unlike what Putin thinks or mistakenly thought, democracies can and will defend not just themselves and their territory, but the principles and rules and the values that actually make us successful,” Trudeau said.
Trudeau flew to Germany Tuesday night for meetings Wednesday with Chancellor Olaf Scholz. He will be joined in Berlin by Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland.
He will end his trip to Europe in Poland later this week.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 8, 2022.
Mike Blanchfield, The Canadian Press