Canada’s troops will live out of tents during the first few months of their June deployment in Latvia as the host nation feverishly prepares to accommodate a 1,200-soldier battle group aimed at deterring Russian aggression in the Baltics.
Commanding officer of the Edmonton-based 1st Battalion Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry, Lt. Col. Wade Rutland, said large-scale construction work is underway at the Adazi military complex to prepare for the arrival of troops in early June.
Earlier this month Latvia's Ministry of Defense requested 8.9 million euros (about C$13 million) from its own government to support the base upgrade, local media reported.
"There's a big infrastructure program right now," Rutland said late last week, speaking from the military base about 45 minutes east of the Latvia's capital of Riga.
"Looking outside and there is construction of barracks going on, so we'll be living in tents or the first few months ... but we are used to that."
A European home for Canada
This will be Canada's first permanent military base and largest sustained presence in Europe since the end of the Cold War and stems from a NATO decision at the Warsaw summit last year to establish an "enhanced forward presence" in Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland.
Troops from 20 of NATO's 28 member nations will form four multinational battle groups as an "important component of NATO's strengthened deterrence and defence posture" against Russia.
Canada is contributing 450 of the 1,200 troops in the Latvian battle group that also will include soldiers from Albania, Italy, Poland, Slovenia and Spain.
The Trudeau government has earmarked $348.6 million over the next three years for the high-readiness mission in Europe.
A map of where countries will be stationed as part of NATO Enhanced Forward Presence.
Preparation is key
Speaking at the conclusion of a three-week deployment that included a two-week military exercise Summer Shield, Rutland said he and a contingent of 42 Canadian military personnel had spent the remaining week scouting the future battlegroup headquarters with a small cohort of Spanish and Italian troops.
Exercise Summer Shield was a multinational combat support exercise of 1,200 troops focusing on a simulated enemy trying to seize Riga from the east, Rutland said.
Rutland, who will be the commanding officer in charge of the battle group, said the time spent on Adazi allowed them to prepare for the arrival of equipment and troops "so when we land in June it will be a seamless move."
That equipment, which includes mechanized infantry and combat service support vehicles, is currently being shipped from Montreal to Riga, he said.
Rutland said the landing of the battle groups in less than two months time "will do a lot to bolster the confidence of the Latvian people" and the people in the Baltics.
"They know there is a threat from a close neighbour there," he said.
It's a sentiment echoed by Latvian ambassador to Canada, Kārlis Eihenbaums.
Lieutenant-Colonel Wade Rutland, Commanding Officer of the 1st Battalion, Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry, addresses soldiers earlier this month.
"Like something out of the Middle Ages"
Eihenbaums said in the three years since Russia's annexation of Crimea, the Baltic nations have nervously waited to see what Europe's colossus would do next.
"The last three years have not been very good," he said.
Facing flashbacks of its own torrid history with Russia — which illegally occupied Latvia twice since the start of the First World War — Eihenbaums said his government increased military spending and upped the training regime of its armed forces while it waited for NATO's forward presence plan.
Russia's illegal occupation of Crimea — a move he labelled "like something out of the Middle Ages" — and the continued conflict on the eastern flank of Ukraine between Russian-backed separatists troops and Ukrainian military, however, instead of dividing the region, may have had the opposite effect.
Eihenbaums said the Moscow aggression was a strategic mistake as it made enemies of Ukrainians and united NATO nations in "solidarity" with the European minnows.
"(Ukraine) lost Crimea for the time being, but not forever," he said.
"They once thought the Baltics were gone forever. It took 50 years, but we are back."
He said the latest troop deployment is the backbone of international support and the fact Canada is leading the Latvian contingent is "very, very important" because of Canada's "international image and reputation."
"This is not just some kind of decision of isolated politicians, this is multinational operation and solidarity is a big concept," he said.
"Sometimes we underestimate solidarity."
With NATO troops continuing to deploy in the region, Eihenbaums said the threat of a Russian incursion is getting smaller and smaller but it still exists.
"Is that what Russia wanted? If they did then they succeeded," he said.
"Did they really want Canadian or U.S. troops in Latvia? If they wanted it, they have it. This troop deployment is a reaction to their behaviour and not vice versa."