OTTAWA — Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is en route to Latvia today to visit Canadian troops and highlight Canada’s military commitments to NATO just ahead of the treaty organization summit later this week in Brussels.
It will mark the first ever bilateral visit by a Canadian prime minister to Latvia and comes as the country celebrates its centenary.
Trudeau is making a point to spend time with the 450 Canadian military personnel that are embedded in Latvia as part of a key NATO battle group, established as the alliance’s response to Russia’s surprise annexation of Crimea in 2014 and its invasion of eastern Ukraine. Canada leads the mission, known as Operation Reassurance, which includes troops from Albania, the Czech Republic, Italy, Poland, Slovakia, Slovenia and Spain.
The prime minister is expected to use the occasion to reaffirm Canada’s commitment to NATO and attempt to fend off criticism about defence spending raised last month by U.S. President Donald Trump, highlighting instead Canada’s military presence and infrastructure dedicated to the alliance.
“This Latvian enhanced forward presence mission altogether in the Baltics and Poland is one of the most successful missions of NATO,” said Karlis Eihenbaums, the Latvian ambassador to Canada.
“We feel much more stable as a people and also the NATO eastern flank is much more stable. You can ask our neighbouring countries which are not NATO members, like Sweden or Finland, what they think, they are very much for this presence … they are very happy that Canadians are there.”
But despite its on-the-ground presence in NATO missions like Latvia, Canada and other countries have faced U.S. pressure to meet the alliance’s target of spending two per cent of GDP on defence and 20 per cent of defence budgets on equipment — targets member states agreed to at a summit in Wales in 2014.
Trump sent letters to the leaders of several NATO allies in recent weeks, including Canada, expressing “growing frustration” over the fact the targets are still not being met by the majority of alliance nations.
Canada argues it has increased its defence spending, with a 10-year commitment to grow funding for defence, which will see $32.7 billion in annual increases. The Liberal government also argues that Canada not only is increasing its funding, but also contributing to NATO operationally.
But while Canada’s role in the Latvian mission is positive, it is a relatively small one compared to ongoing NATO missions in Afghanistan and Kosovo — two operations that are highlighted in annual reports from NATO secretary general Jans Stoltenberg, said David Perry, a senior defence analyst with the Canadian Global Affairs Institute.
“We’re doing good things in Latvia, we’re one of four countries that are leading the battle groups … but the two that the secretary general tracks in his report, we have five out of about 18,000 troops.”
Meanwhile, concerns remain over mounting Russian aggression in the Baltics, which has led to calls for Canada to commit to maintaining its presence in the Latvian deployment.
This month marks the one-year anniversary of the mission, which is up for renewal in 2019.
“The (Latvian mission) has become a symbol of strength that reminds us that only the commitment and the unity of the alliance will deter Russian adventurism,” said Jayson Derow, a research analyst at the NATO Association of Canada.
Derow is also co-author of a recent Macdonald-Laurier Institute report stressing the importance of Canada’s military presence in the Baltic region.
“Ottawa should, and ought to, remain engaged in the security of the Baltic states as long as the threat remains and as long as the alliance remains ultimately unified in its determination to provide collective security for all its members. This unique combination of flexibility and unity has sustained NATO and Canada’s commitment and ability to contribute to European security whenever and wherever it has been at risk — and must continue to do so.”
Eihenbaums said security is also a concern when it comes to trade — Latvia has been trying to grow its exports to Canada under the Canada-EU trade agreement.
“In order to trade we have to have safety,” he said. “We should not stop (the Latvian mission), probably we should go further because we have to think about the air, we have to think about the water, we have to think about the seas.”
During his visit, Trudeau will meet with Latvian Prime Minister Maris Kucinskis and President Raimonds Vejonis. They will lay a wreath at the monument of freedom before meeting with Canadian troops at the military base just outside the city.
Trudeau will be accompanied by Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland, Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan and Gen. Jonathan Vance, chief of the defence staff.