Ambassador of Latvia meets the students of the University of Ottawa

21.01.2020. 23:29

Address by Kārlis Eihenbaums, Ambassador of Latvia to Canada, at the University of Ottawa - L’Université d’Ottawa, Faculty of Social Sciences, School of Political Studies, Comparative Politics: Europe on Trans-Atlantic Security and NATO Enhanced Forward Presence in Latvia.

20 January 2020

Dear All,

My sincere thanks to those who have made this event happen. Thank you to Professor Dr. Tamara Kotar for this kind invitation to address and to talk to you.

I met professors and students from this highly regarded institution earlier and we had a great meetings and discussions; we talked about the world, Canada, and the security challenges we all facing. In today’s interlinked environment, most of Canada’s concerns 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 – I can count more than two-thirds of NATO countries deployed their troops in Latvia and the region. I would call this “solidarity in action”.

Let’s consider the message embedded in our battlegroup itself. The message is that we are “multi-national in character”.

The mainstream of Latvia’s society full-heartedly welcomes them with open arms.

Polls are showing 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.

Around 60 percent of the people in Latvia believe NATO contributes to their security. This remarkable level of popular support has repeatedly remained steady for the past few years.

Popular NGOs, such as the Latvian Transatlantic Organisation, create people-to-people programmes designed by and for the country’s youth. Of the 8,000 members of Latvia’s Youth Guard, 30% are female.

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.

After restoring independence of Latvia in 1991, joining NATO became a top priority. That was achieved in 2004, and along with membership in the EU, it became the pillar of the Baltics’ conventional defence strategy. Relying on multilateralism diplomatically and collective security militarily, the Baltic governments have directed their attention to the security needs and questions of their civilian populations.

Dear Friends,

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.

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.

The 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 civilian targets.

The brazen seizure of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, and the issuing of passports – all in violation of international law.

And then there was the conquest of Ukraine.

Russia took Crimea in the late winter and early spring of 2014. 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.

So many appeals from the international community for Russia to stop and the war in Ukraine just keeps going.

Russia will go where it senses “slack”.

No one will forget the ruthless manner in which operations in Syria have been conducted. Syria is a place where migration is used as a weapon.

Russia saw an opportunity 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.

The negative effects of Russia’s actions could manifest on the other side of the world not just next door.

Dear Friends,

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.

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.

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. Disinformation is the use of false information with the objective of blurring the line between the truth and falsehoods. It’s not for you to believe, it’s there to confuse you.

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. We all make history. But when you remake it to cover up crimes of the past, you make it easier to disguise the crimes of the present.

How worried should we be that this propaganda war can start to take hold in places like Canada if we are not watchful?

Already 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.

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.

After two world wars and 50 years of foreign occupation, it is well understood throughout the Baltic Sea region that civic resilience is a prerequisite for a modern defence and security strategy.

Resilience in the face of hardship comes naturally if it is a precondition for survival. In Latvia, a country of less than two million with a standing army of 6,000, and an 8,000-member National Guard, an effective national defence strategy requires the full engagement of society. That engagement comes naturally when one considers that Latvia and its Baltic neighbours all live next door to Russia, a country that:

1. Is nearly 100 times their size;

2. Has invaded and occupied them in the recent past;

3. Has occasionally threatened to do so again;

4. Consistently engages in a variety of cyber and infowar attacks on Baltic societies;

5. Routinely conducts massive war-games on their borders replicating what is clearly meant to look like a rehearsal for a real invasion.

There is a wide recognition that all efforts should be made to increase and improve the population’s ability to resist all forms of hybrid threats.

But here in Canada, the main target is the Canadian public.

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.

The Russian propaganda machine - 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.

Every country in the Baltic Sea region has experienced a series of cyber-assaults, which continue to test the resilience of regional security systems, infrastructure, and societies. They range from Estonia’s massive cyberattacks in 2007 to disruptions of Latvian cellular networks, Lithuanian government institutions, and Norwegian air traffic control systems.

While these cyber-kinetic interventions can be addressed with technical measures, the assaults on the hearts and minds of local populations through information warfare is a much greater challenge. Baltic populations have been hardened against ‘fake news’ that arrives directly through Russian-language sources. The manipulation of social media through local languages is harder to detect and requires better education in the skills of critical analysis.

Anyway, 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 in 2017.

The decision in 2016 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.

They thought that Ukraine would fall. But, on the contrary, 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.

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.

We are highlighting for all to see that Article V means “all for one and one for all” here and now.

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 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 it is friendly, clean, and tough.

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.

We are importing coaches from Canada. Our world championship team is 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 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 other trees besides maple trees, as well as plants, forests, rivers, mountains, birds and polar bears. 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.

Dear Friends,

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, Canada’s presence in Latvia is strengthening the trans-Atlantic bond and strengthening the peace in our peace-loving Baltic Sea region.

The Baltic states may have the geopolitical disadvantage of living on a security fault line, but they have acquired experience and skills that are invaluable to their friends and allies around the world.

Thank you very much for your attention.