How would Canadians perceive Russian troops on its border?

The Canadian government’s plan to double its semipermanent military force on Russia’s border ratchets up tensions that should be reduced. It highlights the West’s betrayal of promises made to Soviet officials and Canada’s addiction to stationing troops in Europe.

On Monday Justin Trudeau announced that Canada will ramp up its military presence in Latvia. The government will add about 1,200 military personnel to the nearly 1,000 Canadians already deployed on Russia’s border. As part of the announcement Trudeau committed $2.6 billion over three years to expand Latvia-focused Operation REASSURANCE. “Canada will also procure and pre-position critical weapon systems, enablers, supplies and support intelligence, cyber, and space activities”, the prime minister said in a statement. Last month Ottawa announced the deployment of 15 Leopard 2 battle tanks to Latvia.

In 2017 Canada took charge of one of four Eastern European NATO battle groups. In June 2021 Canada opened a $19 million headquarters in Latvia and by the end of the current commitment Canadian Forces will have been stationed there for a decade.

The semi-permanent stationing of Canadian forces on Russia’s border represents a flagrant violation of the promises made to Mikhail Gorbachev at the end of the Cold War. In 1990 the Soviet/Russian leader agreed not to obstruct German reunification, to withdraw tens of thousands of troops from the east and for the new Germany to be part of NATO in return for assurances that the alliance wouldn’t expand “one inch eastward”. A 1990 Ottawa Citizen wire article quoted West Germany’s foreign minister, Hans-Dietrich Genscher, saying, “the West is agreed that with a unification of Germany, there will not be any eastward extension of NATO”, which was ostensibly a defence arrangement against the Soviet Union.

As I’ve detailed, Ottawa led the charge for NATO expansion despite the promises made to Gorbachev. Soon after taking office in 1993 Prime Minister Jean Chretien began promoting Poland’s adhesion to NATO and Ottawa has led the push to double the size of the alliance by expanding into eastern and northern Europe. Ottawa has also promoted Ukraine’s adhesion to the alliance and has trained its military to be interoperable with NATO.

Alongside ending the stated objective for NATO, the dissolution of the Soviet Union undercut Canada’s rationale for stationing troops in Europe. From the early 1950s to 1990s over one hundred thousand Canadian troops rotated through bases in France and Germany. In the late 1960s the Royal Canadian Air Force had over 250 US atomic bombs at its disposal in Europe.

Incredibly, the US-led war in Korea was the initial justification for stationing Canadian troops in Europe (and rearming the colonial powers as they suppressed independence movements with Canadian NATO mutual assistance program weaponry). According to defence minister Brooke Claxton, “NATO owes the fact that it was built-up to the Communist aggression in Korea … To meet the challenge of Korea required a buildup of our forces comparable to what was needed to meet our commitments to Europe.” As per the Washington/Ottawa storyline, the North Korean leadership’s effort to unite the country under its direction in mid 1950 was part of a worldwide communist conspiracy. Who controlled the distant, impoverished, country was of limited import to most North Americans so US/Canadian decision makers claimed Moscow stoked the conflict in Korea to divert attention from its plan to invade Western Europe. In response, thousands of Canadian troops were dispatched to France and Germany in 1951. They would remain in Europe until 1993.

Of course, Canada previously sent large numbers of troops to Europe during World War I and II. Between 1917 and 1920 six thousand Canadian troops invaded Russia. About 600 Canadians fought in Murmansk and Archangel where the British used chemical agent diphenylchloroarsine, which causes uncontrollable coughing and individuals to vomit blood.

Decades earlier Canadians fought the Russians. Much of the British garrison in Canada left for Crimea during the 1853-56 war and many Canadians also volunteered for British units fighting Russia. In “How the Crimean War of 1853 helped shape the Canada of today” historian C.P. Champion describes how the naval base on Vancouver Island was greatly expanded in response to the war. He also quotes historian John Castell Hopkins explaining that the Militia Act of 1855, which formed the basis for today’s army, was “a result of the feeling aroused by the Crimean War.”

Canada has a history of belligerence towards Russia. Given that, this country stationing its troops near Russia’s border is perceived as threatening by Moscow. Remember that Russia shipping some missiles to Cuba resulted in an American naval blockade and almost caused a nuclear holocaust in the early 1960s.

A nation committed to peace must try to understand the viewpoint of potential adversaries. A nation planning war increases tension and prolongs every military standoff. Exactly the way Canada has acted towards Russia for many decades.

Yves Engler is the author of 12 books. His latest book is Stand on Guard for Whom?: A People's History of the Canadian Military . Read other articles by Yves.