When it comes to deterring Russia, will Canada’s Latvia deployment do the trick?

Canada’s planned contribution to a NATO brigade would mean little if an attack from Russia would be unlikely to lead to retaliation, argue Misha Boutilier and Shahryar Pasandideh.

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Participants attend the NATO Summit in Warsaw, Poland July 8, 2016. REUTERS/Kacper Pempel

Last Friday, July 8, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced at the Warsaw Summit that Canada will lead one of four North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) battlegroups tasked with defending Eastern Europe.

Canada will provide 450 troops to a 1,000 strong battlegroup that will defend Latvia and will also deploy one frigate and up to six CF-18 fighter jets to the region. The NATO brigade will also include battlegroups led by the United States, the United Kingdom and Germany. Driving this move is NATO’s determination to prevent another former Soviet state with a significant Russian population from falling victim to Russian incursion, as Ukraine has.

Canada stands to win substantial political benefits from this move. The deployment will demonstrate to Washington and Brussels that Canada is committed to the Alliance. It will likely deflect pressure on the government to raise defence spending to NATO’s two percent target. The deployment may also win credit at the negotiating table for the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA) with the European Union.

Minister of National Defence Harjit Sajjan said recently that Canada’s military role in Eastern Europe has shifted from reassurance to deterrence. However, both Canada’s contribution and the overall NATO brigade are unlikely to achieve NATO’s stated objective of deterring potential Russian aggression against the Baltic states (Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania).

Both the Canadian Forces that will be deployed and the entire NATO brigade lack the numbers and equipment to realistically combat potential Russian aggression. Advocates of the deployment know this. That is why they argue that the force’s presence will serve as a tripwire that will deter Russian aggression, since Russia will fear a broader confrontation with NATO. However, NATO’s potential conventional or nuclear responses to such a Russian move are not credible for both military and political reasons.

Evaluating the Canadian contribution

NATO is attempting to deter two distinct threats from Russia. On the one hand, NATO seeks to deter any application of Russia’s so-called “hybrid warfare” capabilities to its Baltic members. Hybrid warfare refers to the combination of conventional military power, irregular tactics, political and information warfare, and economic and diplomatic pressure by a foreign power to interfere in a country’s affairs. Russia has used these tactics to occupy Crimea in Ukraine and provoke and support a separatist movement in eastern Ukraine.

The force Canada is deploying – and indeed the type of force Canada can deploy – appears sufficient to deal with Russian “hybrid warfare” capabilities. Infantry provide an on the ground deterrent against any adventurous Russian agents, special forces or local proxies without requiring heavy equipment.

The problem is that this mission poses significant political and legal complexities. It is unclear what role such NATO forces would play in peacetime, during crises or during conflict. For example, will Canadian infantry conduct foot patrols along the Russian border? If so, what will be the rules of engagement during peacetime, crises and war? What restrictions will the Baltic states place on these forces? Are Canadians prepared for their personnel to be the initiators or first victims of a serious crisis with Russia if Russian agents or armed local proxies – the envisaged threat – are encountered?

If the intent is not to actually use forward deployed NATO forces out of garrison, then what purpose do they serve beyond deterring a conventional attack – a task they are not suited for? How should Canadian forces respond to potentially threatening activity by putative local civilians – say operating a drone – during a tense international situation when such actions may be a precursor to an attack? All these questions undermine the effectiveness of the Canadian force at countering Russian “hybrid warfare.”

NATO simultaneously seeks to position forces which make the NATO commitment to protect the territorial integrity of the Baltic states from the second threat – Russian conventional attack – more credible to both Baltic and Russian eyes. But here the proposed Canadian force is really lacking. The forces that Canada intends to pre-deploy are simply not well-equipped to deter a Russian conventional invasion. The infantry battalion that Ottawa will deploy lacks the equipment to respond to the conventional threat from Russia’s tank, armoured vehicle and artillery-heavy army. The Department of National Defence recently retired much of the infantry’s anti-tank capabilities. Gone are the medium-range TOW anti-tank missiles, and the man-portable short-range ERYX missiles. Canadian infantry would therefore have to defend themselves with much less effective shoulder-launched rockets and recoilless rifles. Canada could deploy Leopard 2 tanks to remedy this situation, but only a limited number, and those would be difficult to sustain.

Similar challenges exist in dealing with other sources of Russian conventional strength. The Canadian Forces lack artillery rockets and heavy mortars, have small numbers of long-range howitzers, and have precious little air-defence capability. They also lack any form of active defence against enemy mortars, artillery, rockets and missiles. These systems have been used against the Ukrainian military to devastating effect. 

Even if Canada deployed a well-equipped force and resolved the political complexities around hybrid warfare, the entire proposed forward-deployed NATO brigade could not withstand a Russian attack and would be quickly overrun. Russia’s deployable forces significantly outnumber the four planned NATO battalions and are far superior in artillery. Many European countries also share Canada’s difficulties in defending against air, artillery and ballistic missile attacks, and would struggle to threaten enough attrition to deter a potential Russian attack. A RAND Corporation war game in which NATO forces of similar strength to the proposed battlegroups tried to defend the Baltic States against a Russian attack confirms Russia’s ability to achieve a quick victory. In that war game, Russian forces defeated or bypassed NATO forces and reached the gates of the Estonian or Latvian capitals within 36 to 60 hours. 

An ineffective tripwire

Advocates of the NATO deployments to the Baltics understand that the force could not withstand a conventional Russian attack, which is why they argue that the mere presence of NATO forces in the Baltic States would deter Russia, which would face a conflict with the rest of NATO if it attacked the Baltic States. 

However, NATO’s lack of credible options if that occurs means that the brigade itself is not an effective tripwire. If Russia did quickly overrun the NATO brigade, NATO would face very bleak options such as a full-scale conventional war and nuclear threats. The former is not entirely credible given the economic and human costs, the political strains that NATO would face as it built up forces for a counterattack, and the risk of nuclear escalation – all of which risk splintering the alliance. Any nuclear threats are also likely to lack credibility both within and without NATO. Within the alliance, there would likely be strong political pressure against nuclearization. In the Kremlin, the idea that NATO would use nuclear weapons against Russian-occupied NATO territory or Russia proper is unlikely to be considered credible, given Russia’s substantial nuclear arsenal.

There is, of course, another option in such a scenario – to accept a Russian occupation, at least for the short term until a diplomatic resolution is negotiated. This would avoid broadening the conflict, but would also render the Alliance’s mutual defence promise hollow.

Certainly, leading the battlegroup stands to win Canada considerable political benefits and contributes to strengthening the appearance of a resolute alliance commitment to the Baltic states. What it does not contribute to is actually deterring against a potential Russian conventional threat. We do not argue that Russia intends to invade the Baltic States. Nonetheless, Russia’s ability to quickly overrun the Baltic States would put NATO in a tough position and risks damaging its credibility. Perhaps regrettably, the NATO brigade does not provide a military solution to a very challenging diplomatic problem.