Remarks by H.E. Kārlis Eihenbaums, Ambassador of Latvia to Canada
The Latvia Symposium
Glendon College, International Studies, York University
Trans-Atlantic Security and Canada’s Mission in Latvia
29 March 2019
My sincere thanks to those who have made this event happen.
The last time I was in Toronto was this past January for one very special event, in which we celebrated the 70th anniversary of the Toronto Latvian Society. We had a great meeting and discussion with the leadership of our compatriots that established schools for Latvians who wanted to keep up their Latvian roots, language, and culture. I am proud that we have a few of these great institutions that keep us going as Latvians in Canada. Canada has been kind and welcoming to Latvians that were looking for refuge after the disastrous and catastrophic World War II.
During the meeting in Toronto, we talked about Canada and the security challenges it faces. Many of them are shared with the wider world, including the Baltics and Latvia.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
With Canadian troop deployment to Latvia and the ongoing presence in Ukraine, Canada is helping countries like my own deal with new threats and dangers aimed at the heart of universal western values, rule of law, and democratic governments.
In Warsaw in 2016, NATO leaders gave the signal to put our guards up more visibly, so that no one, in their right mind, could be tempted to test what the Alliance is made of.
As a result, many NATO countries deployed their troops in Latvia and the region. I would call this “solidarity in action”.
Latvia is a home away from home for many Canadian and allied troops. The mainstream of Latvia’s society full-heartedly welcomes them with open arms.
A recent poll showed that nearly half of the people living in Latvia believe that the country’s security has improved compared to what it was back in 2015.
Why is that? What’s the number one reason?
It’s the presence of NATO Allies in Latvia.
Hard training and procurement also count; this is now happening with at a pace and intensity unmatched since the renewal of independence in 1991.
Around 60 percent of the people in Latvia believe NATO contributes to their security. This remarkable level of popular support has been consecutively remained steady for the past few years.
When asked if they can be proud of Latvian soldiers, 2/3 of respondents polled gave a positive answer: yes.
Canada’s deployment directly supports Latvia and our neighbours Estonia and Lithuania. It also benefits other countries that are clustered along the shores of the Baltic Sea like Poland, Germany, Denmark, Norway, and our non-NATO partners Sweden and Finland.
It was so important that all NATO countries stepped up; responding in this critical moment for maintaining our law-based world order.
This move keeps NATO strong when NATO will have to arm itself with new approaches as it prepares to “face off” against new kinds of opponents—opponents that recognise that the information space is a prime target and opponents that are ready to fight “dirty”, no holds barred.
We can talk a lot about holding strategic locations on the ground—in Ukraine, somewhere in the Middle East, or even Gotland in Sweden—but we are equally concerned about the influence projected through traditional media outlets and social media, and with what our citizens and even some politicians manage to hear and read as they flip through the channels. It is concerning because what happens in that space can not only change the map, but also shape political landscapes and alter election results.
Let’s consider the message embedded in our battlegroup itself. The message is that we are “multi-national in character”.
I can count more than two-thirds of NATO countries joining the four battlegroups in the Baltic States and Poland. Even with the newest member, Montenegro, the number is growing.
Perceived weakness is almost as bad as real weakness. Those who perceive weakness are tempted to exploit it.
And this is undoubtedly true in times when there are conscious attempts to shift the position of the goalposts, and sow tension.
Latvia will pull its weight. Latvians are positive about beefing up their defences.
While people may well have different ways of explaining things, Russia’s aggressive posture is certainly noted and the concern is real even if it is sometimes under-stated especially in public remarks.
True courage and bravery means doing things with an awareness that the brave man or woman is doing things that a risky on behalf of their nation.
In Latvians you will see real mettle, real courage, and a readiness to face the truth, but also sometimes a certain reserve in the face of clear provocations.
Petty but dangerous bullying, its lack of hesitance to use of elements of hybrid warfare, the casual references to targeting countries with nuclear weapons - these lines of action examined together reveal a disturbing pattern of behaviour. Absence of a collective Allied response could be interpreted as an invitation to cross intersections on the same aggressive course.
We, in Europe and North America, tried hard to look the other way. We did a lot of hoping.
Consider the last two wars in Chechnya. The barbaric rocket attacks on Grozny.
The brazen seizure of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, and the issuing of passports – all in violation of international law.
We wanted such things to be an anomaly, a passing aberration, and did our best to ignore them and continue on our merry way.
And then there was the conquest of Ukraine.
Russia took Crimea in the late winter and early spring of 2014 five short years ago. Short years and so much has changed since then!
Then, Russia annexed Crimea. Russia once again showed that they are the best piece-keeper (not UN peacekeeper). Russia takes a piece of land from a sovereign nation by force and keeps it.
We have had a chance to see the results of non-stop diplomacy. Slim pickings.
So many appeals from the international community for Russia to stop and the war in Ukraine just keeps going.
So Crimea was a catalyst to admit that we were wrong about placing all our chips on “mere hopefulness”.
Russia will go where it senses “slack”.
No one will forget the ruthless manner in which operations in Syria have been conducted. The bombings and the chemical attacks.
The Netflix film that won an Oscar for best short documentary captures the desperation of the non-combatants caught in the bombardment, and heroism of the White Helmets that dug so many people out of the rubble of shattered cities.
Syria is a place where migration is used as a weapon.
A Canadian civil right activist Marcus Kolga emphasised this thought in a Toronto Star article, already in 2017: the notion of conscious tampering, the initiation of waves of migration, making experienced European leaders look bad, and potentially altering the results of elections for years to come, not to mention the direct effect that such waves had on voters favouring Brexit.
Russia saw an opportunity in Syria to have a firmer foothold on the shores of the Mediterranean, and to test its planes and armaments on battlefields of its own making, all the while testing the boundaries of the patience of the international community and the boundaries of international law.
If the international community stands back and watches when borders are re-drawn and atrocities are repeated, countries that have been jealously eyeing their neighbour’s land may feel like they have an opening to go in and take what doesn’t belong to them.
The negative effects of Russia’s actions could manifest on the other side of the world not just next door in Latvia.
We are not taking Canadian or any other Allies’ generosity for granted. We are doing our part. We have already reached two percent of GDP on defence spending.
We are investing in radar, sensors, and other equipment that boost our situational awareness. More should and will be done.
We are training intensively with our friends and we are adapting.
Latvia has been present in Afghanistan, in Iraq, in the Mediterranean, in Mali, in the Central African Republic, and off the coast of Somalia.
And Latvians are proud of these soldiers, the ones that go out where the trouble is, and the ones that are holding the fort; more than 70 percent of respondents said they were proud.
Russia’s aggressive posture is part of how we came to such a pass. Still, we want to one day come out on the other side with Russia realising that it gained nothing from playing the bully.
We want Russia to realise that a good neighbour is as important as a far-away friend, and sometimes more important.
Ultimately, Russia should realise that the liberty of its people and the openness of its society is a useful thing to have.
Meanwhile, we are stuck trying to live with Russia’s dangerous bullying, hybrid warfare, and other tactics even involving poisoning; the use of chemical substances – remember “cathedral enthusiasts” in a quiet town in rural Britain. It’s a disturbing pattern of behaviour.
And the lack of a collective NATO response could be seen as a green light.
We face a combination of older games, and the newer games in the information space where state-controlled media are impacting how people understand the news, sowing doubts and muddling the truth so much that even well-educated people become disoriented. And this “half-truth” is even more dangerous than a simple lie. A lie, you can detect at some stage, but half a truth is sure to mislead for the long-term.
We have seen how effective Russia’s information war has been to promote a certain narrative, which is anti-globalisation, anti-NATO, and so on. History, especially around WWII is playing big part in this promotion of lies as the main purpose is to distract and to foment discord within society.
How worried should we be that this propaganda war can start to take hold in places like Canada if we are not watchful?
Russia Today (now re-branded as RT) or certain so-called “local experts” are just few examples of a propaganda vehicle already embedded in Canada. Russia is and will be trying to promote the message — stay away from their “legitimate” historical spheres of interest, emphasizing the concept that an uncertainty flows from the ways in which the society in not perfectly integrated.
Russia is asserting that ethnic Russians living in Latvia and the other Baltic States are divided from the rest of the population and that Latvians, Estonians and Lithuanians have a pro-western bias.
The Kremlin will ensure that the state-sponsored media conveys the sense that Canadians and Canada are getting involved and entangled in the wrong place at the wrong time, and that it would be better if they concentrated on hockey and that’s it.
The main target is the Canadian public and not Latvians in Latvia. Well known propagandists and masters of disinformation—for whom propaganda is second nature—know all too well that Latvians are strong and that we have learned our lessons from history.
This is the kind of thing you already can see from articles appearing even in serious Canadian media outlets.
Just my simple observation - once Canada in 2016 decided to increase its engagement and presence in Europe, in line with its commitments to NATO and shared interests in closer co-operation with the EU, nasty articles started to flow.
So, RT/Russia Today, Sputnik and their puppets are specifically targeting Canadians and working to undermine their determination, interest, and commitment with regard to NATO and with regard to support for the battlegroup in Latvia.
We all can be targeted and this is one of the aims: to make us worried and to cause us to live in fear if they can, because that would alter our behaviour, in a manner conducive to appeasement and passivity.
Russia was already massing military manpower and hardware on the edge of peaceful Europe prior to NATO’s decision to enhance its forward presence on the eastern periphery.
The decision on the four battlegroups came after Russia’s decision to place three new divisions near NATO’s Eastern flank. NATO’s assurance measures are response to Russia’s behaviour, and not vice versa.
The Russian propaganda machine tried to promote the feeling that we in the Baltics are isolated and that we will be left out alone in the cold, but they have been totally wrong.
Many countries have wanted to come to the Baltics and Poland and more are joining.
And there is a certain desperation in the Russian leadership’s mind as they see that this narrative is not gaining traction and time is running out. They thought that Ukraine would fall. But, on the contrary, Ukraine is becoming strong. The Ukrainians are pulling themselves together; they are consolidating, uniting, and engaging in what might be called “late nation-building”. The Russian leadership made a strategic mistake when they turned this great state and people against them—a nation with a population larger than Canada. I suspect that Ukrainians will be turned against Russia for a very, very long time to come, given the suffering that they have experienced.
Despite the hostile attitude, NATO has nevertheless stood by a “two-track approach” in dealing with Russia: deterrence and dialogue. The two go together. We deploy soldiers and we deploy diplomats. Two sides of one coin.
Defence and dialogue. Why?
Because no person and no country respects or admires the spineless. Russia least of all.
Respect is good for dialogue. Respect promotes dialogue.
It must be clear that Article V is not some old phrase in some old agreement that might or might not apply in a current time of need; with its footprint in Latvia, we are highlighting for all to see that Article V means “all for one and one for all” here and now.
Assuming a greater role in NATO’s collective defence means that democracies in the trans-Atlantic area are better protected.
This move also increases the visibility and recognition of participating NATO countries, especially in Europe and also at the North Atlantic Council.
Another thing to keep in mind: Canadian troops are not only on NATO territory, but also on European Union territory. The efforts of the EU and NATO should be mutually reinforcing. For these institutions to be working in tandem would be good any time of the year or the decade, but it is absolutely crucial when we are addressing hybrid threats.
In this process of making everything and everyone work together so that we come out stronger and better on the other side of the challenges, it made so much sense that a country like Canada has chosen to lead.
It should be recognised that not just any Ally was suited to lead the multinational battlegroup in Latvia.
It makes sense that a country like Canada which sees diversity as a strength is chosen to lead the most diverse of all battlegroups. And it helps to choose a country that Latvians like. Latvians simply like Canada. Many do not even know why. But I’ll tell you why.
Latvians in Latvia see themselves as connected with Canada and drawn to it, as a land of promise, and a land of refuge for relatives who fled World War II, and because its friendly, clean, and tough.
In connection with this troop deployment, people in Latvia were asked about their associations with Canada.
Hockey was the answer given by most; one third of respondents thought of hockey when they were thinking of Canada.
Yes, there is the unmistakeable and unmissable hockey connection. Latvia has made that connection stronger by investing in a secret weapon; you know about that, right?
We are importing coaches from Canada. Our world championship team was coached by a Canadian: Bob Hartley from Hawkesbury, Ontario. Before Hartley, we had Chief Ted Nolan. We have seen that Canadian coaches give us an edge and in 2014, Latvia came awfully close to beating Canada in the Sochi Olympics!
Around a tenth of Latvians polled said that they saw in their mind’s eye wealth and prosperity in Canada, they saw Canada’s maple leaf logo and maple syrup, and lots of trees besides maple trees, also plants, shrubbery, forests, rivers, mountains, birds of prey and polar bears. Life up north in all its natural beauty.
But most Latvians did not think of beavers when they thought of Canada. We have plenty of beavers in Latvia and will be ready to export them if you run short.
The military art is geared toward avoiding wars and preserving peace but at the same time, military history proves that “we must be ready to protect ourselves”.
Together we are united in our resolve to protect Alliance territories and prevent conflict.
We welcome Canada’s contribution to Euro-Atlantic defence and feel good that Latvia is the host country for the Canadian-led NATO battlegroup. Together we stand for our universal western values.
From Latvia’s perspective, the trans-Atlantic bond is essential to European defence. There is no substitute for this bond and Canada’s presence in Latvia is strengthening that bond and strengthening the peace in our peace-loving Baltic Sea region.
And while you are reaching for your Sun Tzu and Clausewitz, and considering how to outfox potential adversaries using the wisdom of ages, there is this simple inescapable truth that we must sometimes employ our knowledge of the martial arts in order to preserve the peace. If an adversary is aware of our ability to fight, that is often enough to get him or her to stand down.
Let me conclude with quote from Sun Tzu:
“The art of war teaches us to rely not on the likelihood of the enemy's not coming, but on our own readiness to receive him; not on the chance of his not attacking, but rather on the fact that we have made our position unassailable.”
Thank you very much for your attention.