Canada’s newest overseas military mission got underway Saturday as the first plane load of soldiers arrived at their new home near the Latvian capital of Riga.
For their commander, Canadian Lt-Col. Wade Rutland, success at his high-profile military assignment to deter Russian aggression in the region will be relatively straightforward to measure.
“It’s a funny mission success criteria, that if nothing happens, we’ll all go home happy, but that’s it,” said Rutland as he met the new arrivals on the airport tarmac.
The Canadian CC-150 Polaris touched down under a warm Baltic sun carrying 100 soldiers from an Edmonton-based mechanized brigade.
They’re the first of 450 troops who will arrive over the next several days as part of a bolstered NATO force.
Canada to lead
The battle group will be made up of troops and heavy equipment from several countries, including Italy, Spain, Albania, Poland and Slovenia, but it will be led by Canada.
Company commander Maj. John Hagemeyer was among the first off the plane carrying his kit bag.
“It’s good to finally be here,” he told CBC News. “We want to be here. Latvia wants us here.”
Russia’s takeover of Crimea in 2014 and its continued support of pro-Russian separatists in Eastern Ukraine has rattled many in the tiny Baltic republic who worry they could be targeted next.
Canada offered to lead what the military terms the “enhanced forward presence” battle group in Latvia to deter any aggression.
Latvia has been hosting NATO troops ever since it was admitted to the alliance in 2004, but Canadians have always come and gone on short-term exercises.
This time they’re here to stay as part of an open-ended mission with no expiry date.
New home a fixer-upper
The troops’ new home will be at a Soviet-era military base about 45 minutes from the capital, which under the U.S.S.R. served as the army’s main presence in the region.
Latvia’s government is contributing $13 million to help with the refurbishments.
The facility is badly rundown and the Canadians are building most of what they need from scratch.
Lt.-Col Hugo Delisle, commanding officer of the theatre opening team, has had up to 185 personnel preparing the site to get ready, which he says has gone well.
“The soldiers right now have only had two days off in the last 45 days. They’re working 10 hours a day to arrive at this point, ” said Delisle as he took CBC News on a tour of the Canadian compound.
The troops will be sleeping in tent-like temporary shelters until August when new, permanent barracks are completed.
Plans also call for sports facilities including a gym and track, as well as restaurants and social areas.
In a heavily protected parking lot a short distance from the living area, crews have parked several dozen nearly new LAV6 armored personnel carriers for the battle group.
Other countries, such as Poland and Italy, are providing tanks.
Mission to cost more than $260M
The Canadian soldiers who arrived Saturday will likely stay until Christmas when they’ll be rotated out.
The Trudeau government expects the mission will cost over $260 million over the next three years.
NATO is beefing up its presence in the Baltic by sending a total of 4,000 troops to other countries in the region.
That number pales in comparison to the estimated 50,000 to 70,000 troops on the other side of the border that are part of Russia’s western force.
Tactical simulations have suggested the tiny Baltic country of two million people could be completely overrun by Russian troops within two or three days.
Hagemeyer says those odds don’t bother him.
“That’s not our concern,” he said. “We are fully prepared for the highest levels of threat.”