Canada and other NATO members continue pressing Putin

The Globe and Mail, By Steven Chase, 21 June 2017

The former head of Latvia’s armed forces says it’s hard to predict how long NATO members such as Canada will need to deploy troops to Eastern Europe as part of a deterrence force against Russian expansionism.

Retired lieutenant-general Raimonds Graube, the commander of Latvia’s National Armed Forces until February, 2017, visited Canada this week to meet with defence officials and speak about the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s “enhanced forward presence” mission in Poland and the Baltic states to deter Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Canada is currently leading one of four NATO battle groups as part of this deployment. About 450 Canadian troops are now deployed in Latvia at Camp Adazi, northeast of the country’s capital, Riga.

The message to Moscow underlines the collective defence pact at the heart of the Western military alliance. The presence of troops from all over the NATO map reminds Mr. Putin, who annexed Crimea in 2014, that an attack on Latvia or other member countries would be treated as an attack against all, including Canada.

When asked how long the deterrence force will be needed, the former top Latvian soldier said: “It’s a difficult question. I don’t have answers.”

NATO will need an extra presence on its eastern flank until the security situation changes, he said.

That will depend on Mr. Putin. Mr. Graube said he believes the Russian President requires a distraction from problems at home, where Russia’s economy has been struggling to adapt to a dramatic decline in oil prices as well as sanctions imposed by the West after Moscow seized the Crimean Peninsula.

“He fights to stay in power. His only strategy is to keep [his] regime in full control,” Mr. Graube said of the Russia leader.

A significant economic upturn for Russia could alter Mr. Putin’s priorities.

“If the economy does well and oil prices go up again, maybe he won’t need to use an external enemy to calm down internal problems.”

Lieutenant General (ret.) Raimonds Graube.

In the meantime, Latvia and the rest of NATO are bracing for waves of Russian disinformation and propaganda designed to undermine support for the military alliance in the region.

Latvian support for the more than 1,000 NATO troops deployed in that Baltic country is far from unanimous.

A poll conducted in December of Latvians by SKDS, a public-opinion research and marketing firm, showed 44 per cent of respondents had a positive attitude toward the presence of the NATO troops in Latvia. Thirty per cent were neutral, 17 per cent were negative and 9 per cent could not say how they felt.

But there’s still an opportunity for Russian propagandists.

Mr. Graube said NATO and Latvian government officials expect the information warfare to continue.

“I think we can expect provocations on a very simple kind of ground level,” he said.

Just last week, a Russian-language news website taking aim at Canada’s deployment in Latvia published previously released photos of convicted killer Russell Williams, a former Canadian Armed Forces officer, wearing women’s lingerie. Vesti.lv used the photos to mock Canadian soldiers.

It comes on the heels of a steady drumbeat of Internet-based attacks on NATO soldiers designed to sow distrust and fear.

Nazi propaganda posters are redesigned to show NATO symbols and raise fears over German soldiers deployed to Lithuania as part of the alliance commitment.

Other Internet-based attacks on the deployment claim, falsely, that the military alliance is conducting psychological warfare experiments on Baltic civilians and that NATO is planning an attack on Russia’s Baltic Sea exclave of Kaliningrad.

The retired general says Mr. Putin’s approach to geopolitics is significantly different.

“The West plays chess. There is a chessboard and there are rules. And we are playing chess with Putin, but he is playing poker with us. He is bluffing, using hidden cards.

“We analyze him from our Western mindset, but he is different.”

Russia has criticized the NATO deployments on the alliance’s eastern flank as provocative.

But Mr. Graube says Russian troop exercises far exceed NATO exercises in terms of the number of soldiers involved. And he points to the building of a military helicopter base in Ostrov, Russia, that is less than 30 kilometres from the Russian-Latvian border.

Like many Latvians, the retired general wears a Namejs ring of three interlaced strips of silver that has become synonymous with the Baltic country. Legend says Namejs was a tribal chief who fought foreign invaders.

Mr. Graube began wearing it as his wedding ring in 1979, when Latvia was still under Soviet rule.

“During the Russian occupation, it was my hidden signal,” he said.

The relatively small NATO deployment could never hope to stop a Russian attack, were it to occur.

But it’s a show of solidarity for an alliance that has found a revived raison d’être after the invasion of Crimea and seeks to use that deterrence, rather than force, to prevail.

Referring to the Namejs’s interwoven silver strands, Mr. Graube said, with hope: “If NATO is as strong as this ring, we are invincible.”

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