NATO mission that includes Manitoba-based soldiers takes on added significance after invasion of Ukraine

An ongoing NATO mission in the heart of eastern Europe has taken on new meaning for the Canadian soldiers who are there — including some from Manitoba who were recently sent overseas.

Canadian Armed Forces members from CFB Shilo, in southwestern Manitoba, arrived in Latvia as part of Operation Reassurance in mid-June.

According to the Canadian Armed Forces, that mission involves exercises, training and “some NATO-specific tasks” in central and eastern Europe, as part of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s “assurance and deterrence measures.”

Lt.-Col. Jesse van Eijk, commanding officer of the 2nd Battalion, Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry, says Operation Reassurance is a display of strength and solidarity between NATO members that has taken on new importance since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine began last February.

“Fundamentally, from a more geopolitical standpoint, it’s a really important, visible example of NATO doing what we say we’re going to do and providing the deterrence effect against aggression from Russia,” he said.

“It’s a fantastic … opportunity for our soldiers to actually deploy in operations in a conventional setting, work with 10 or more other nations, practise all the skills that they’ve been working on in Canada, and actually put them to use.”

Lt.-Col. Jesse van Eijk is commanding officer of the 2nd Battalion, Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry. (Submitted by Canadian Armed Forces)

With the invasion of Ukraine, what was once posturing by Russia has evolved into active aggression against another sovereign nation, he said. That demonstrates the need for the alliance when it comes to collective defence, said van Eijk.

Operation Reassurance involves about 1,000 members from all three sections of the military, the Candian Armed Forces says, making it the single largest operation for Canada currently underway. 

That number includes more than 200 soldiers from the Princess Patricias and 100 soldiers from the 1st Regiment, Royal Canadian Horse Artillery from CFB Shilo.

The Canadian military started lending support for the NATO mission in 2014. In March, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau toured the NATO base in Latvia and announced Canada’s involvement in the operation, which had been slated to end in 2023, would be extended indefinitely in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. 

Van Eijk said it is critical to show the Canadian Armed Forces stands united with its allies.

“Canada really plays an important role in the world,” he said. “There are Canadian soldiers out here every day working hard to make sure that the world stays as safe as it can and we keep enjoying Canada as it is.”

Unity in the face of aggression: prof

Canada’s role in Latvia hasn’t changed since the Russian invasion of Ukraine, but it does demonstrate NATO allies’ commitment to working together, said Richard Baker, an assistant professor of political science at Brandon University.

The mission has “evolved in terms of … the implications of what we’re doing there is now laid bare for people,” Baker said.

“It’s happening at a time when Russia is engaging aggressively in the region. It’s invaded Ukraine. It invaded a sovereign country and has taken over parts of its territory.”

Canada’s mission in Latvia is part of an attempt to demonstrate the country’s willingness to put ‘our money where our mouth is,’ says Brandon University political science assistant professor Richard Baker. (Submitted by Canadian Armed Forces)

He added the position of Canadian troops in parts of the former Soviet Union like Latvia, which joined NATO in 2004, is an important operation for the newer members of the the treaty organization.

Many of these countries have a history similar to Ukraine’s and are in a similar position to that country, he said, and NATO’s presence could act as a deterrent against further conflicts.

“Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia, have been very aggressive. They’ve been sort of the tip of the spear about how to respond to Russia in a way that some of the more traditional, or some of the other countries in NATO, are a little bit less forceful,” Baker said.

He described Operation Reassurance as “a tripwire defence” — having soldiers on the ground means if there is aggression, Canada and NATO would be drawn into action.

It’s part of an attempt to demonstrate the determined nature of Canadian policy and the country’s willingness to put “our money where our mouth is,” he said.