The real front line of Canada’s military deployment to Latvia is almost 230 kilometres from where the troops are unpacking at Adazi near Riga this week — and it’s extremely unlikely any of the soldiers will ever see the target of all their preparations.
A few kilometres from the town of Vilaka, Latvia’s land border with Russia is marked by a high metal fence with barbed wire that stretches for kilometres.
“We are not only guarding Latvia’s border but all of Europe,” says Latvian border patrol guard Dzintars Cunskis, who walks the dirt road alongside the fence every day.
He’s aware of the arrival the NATO battle group, including the 450 Canadians, but he says he’s detected nothing unusual on Russia’s side of the line.
“If something happens, we would know immediately.”
Canadian commanders here say while they want to provide a deterrence to any potential move on the Baltic states by Russia they also want to avoid doing anything provocative. So they plan to stay far away from this heavily forested border area and not give those on the other side of the fence anything to complain about.
The Vilaka region, about a three-hour drive from the capital, has a long history of resisting outside occupiers.
While Latvia has more Russian speakers and closer ties to Russia than any of the other Baltic nations, this part of the country is fiercely nationalist.
Seventy years ago, a huge bog near here was the home of hundreds of partisans who first fought the Nazis and then the Soviets who replaced them.
It’s considered a source of local pride.
Today, a small factory, SRC Brasa, outside the town churns out tactical gear for Latvia’s military, sewn together by workers such as Inita Nikolajeva. Her home is less than two kilometres from the border, and she says local residents know in the event of a conflict there’d be no time for anyone to come to their aid.
In fact, she says they even share some dark humour about it.
“We joke, we could go to sleep in Latvia and wake up in Russia.”
“But I don’t think there will be a military conflict,” she quickly adds. Latvia’s government requested the NATO deployment, and it appears to be widely supported in the country, including here.
At the same time, most people CBC News talked to suggested the troops are here more to make a political statement than change the tactical situation on the ground.
Vilaka Mayor Sergejs Maksimovs said he sees important differences between Latvia and Crimea, which Russia annexed in 2014.
Crimea has more cultural and historical ties to Russia than Lativa, making Crimeans more likely to support a Russian takeover.
“With the presence of NATO troops, it’s not possible,” he said.
The local municipality has been working with nearby Russian communities toward creating Latvia’s first cross-border cycling route following the route of an abandoned rail line. Maksimovs says that work will continue in spite of the arrival of NATO troops.
Factory mechanic Juris Martinenko told CBC News there’s another, much simpler reason why the Russian threat is unlikely to materialize.
“We don’t have any important things here,” he said, so why would Russia ever bother challenging Latvia?