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Latvian diplomat says NATO deployment may have to stay for 10 years to counter Russia

Soldiers participate in a training activity at Camp Adazi in Latvia on October 17, 2017.

Master Corporal Gerald Cormier

One of Latvia's top lawmakers says Canada and other NATO member countries must be prepared to keep soldiers deployed in the Baltic state for as long as a decade to signal resolve to Russia.

"I think it's important to indicate a readiness to be there ... if it requires 10 years," Ojars Kalnins, chair of the Latvian parliament's foreign affairs committee, said in an interview on Wednesday.

The parliamentarian and former diplomat is visiting Ottawa this week seeking to build closer trade and cultural ties between his country and Canada.

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Canada is leading a NATO battle group in Latvia that includes as many as 450 Canadian soldiers, part of a significant buildup of troops and assets on the eastern flank of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization to counter Russian expansionism.

Russia's 2014 annexation of Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula and its support for pro-Moscow separatists in the war in eastern Ukraine have disrupted relations between Moscow and the West and have revitalized the NATO military alliance.

Thousands of troops from as many as 28 NATO countries have been deployed across the Baltic states, Poland, Romania and Bulgaria – the military alliance's largest buildup in the region since the Cold War – in an attempt to contain further aggression by Russian President Vladimir Putin's government.

Mr. Kalnins said he nevertheless hopes an extended commitment in Latvia is not necessary and that Canadian soldiers will not be there a decade from now.

"We're hoping it's not permanent, because for it to be permanent, it means the threat is permanent."

The Canadian government's commitment to the Latvian deployment extends until March 31, 2019. It's part of an overall pledge to support NATO that includes a frigate deployed on what the Canadian military calls a "persistent rotational basis" for exercises and operations in the NATO Maritime Command's area of responsibility. Canada's commitment also includes an air task force comprised of up to six CF-18 fighters, flight crew, command staff and support, to conduct periodic surveillance and "air policing" in Iceland and Romania in 2017.

What to do beyond March, 2019, "would be a government decision to be made in due course," the Department of National Defence said in a statement on Wednesday.

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Critics have said the NATO eastern flank deployment would not stop a Russian invasion, but Mr. Kalnins said what is important is that it puts many alliance members on the front line, making clear to Mr. Putin that any attack would draw a full, collective response from NATO.

"For me, the importance is not how many troops there are, but how many countries," he said, noting that six NATO member countries have soldiers in Latvia alone.

"The significance there is if Russia were to invade, and they start going after Canadians, Spaniards, Italians, then it's against NATO [as a whole], and I think Putin understands that."

Mr. Kalnins says Canadians may not realize how grateful Latvia is or how keen the country of less than 2 million people is to build stronger ties with Canada.

Latvia, for example, was the first country in the 28-member European Union to ratify the Canada-EU free trade deal, the lawmaker says. Only a small number of EU countries have so far done so.

"To us, Canada is a European power, more so maybe than the United States," the lawmaker said, adding that Latvia is a leader in information-technology services, for instance, and is looking for new business relationships.

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"We want to buy Bombardier planes. We want more investment," Mr. Kalnins told a parliamentary committee earlier this week.

The Latvian lawmaker said he believes Russia's main interest is fomenting disunity among members of the European Union, citing the funding Moscow gives to right-wing parties in France and Hungary.

The Russian goal would be to split the European Union consensus on whether to retain sanctions against Russia and Mr. Putin's allies stemming from Moscow's annexation of Crimea and its backing for the war in eastern Ukraine, he said.

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