Good morning, everybody, and thank you, Chair.
Not so many hours have passed since yesterday's dinner. I'll try to emphasize some of the points we talked about yesterday, because I think it's very important that notes are taken and recordings are recorded. In our committee, every session is recorded, and it's available to the general public on request. Anybody can request a recording and receive that. We're used to working in such an environment, and we appreciate this very much.
First of all, before coming to Canada, my staff prepared a report on our relationship with Canada in general, but mostly about security issues. It was very interesting to read. It's kind of going back in history. My first degree is in history, and looking at how our relations developed over time, believe me, up to the year 2016, there were only two paragraphs. One of was them about how Canada became the first nation to ratify accession of Latvia to NATO. Thank you so much, once more, for this.
The second one was about Canada's offering our young officers extensive studies of English and French, which actually were very useful. I know many officers who have been here for that training. It's interesting enough that people came here to learn French more than they went to France to learn French. We use these officers now in our mission to Mali, so it's really useful.
Modern history starts in 2016 on June 30 when your government took a decision to be a leading or framework nation for NATO's enhanced forward presence mission in Latvia. That's when you start reading events that take place almost on a daily basis or on a weekly basis, different meetings, planning, people going back and forth, and agreements reached and signed.
Imagine this. There was decision your government took on June 30, and your troops and all the equipment necessary were there in Latvia on June 18, 2017. It took less than a year to move 450 men and women and necessary equipment to Latvia. Only two months passed, and Canada was a leading framework nation there, and, together with other partners, is fully certified as a battalion in Latvia.
I think it's a great success; a great success on the part of NATO and all the countries who reached these decisions in Wales and Warsaw. It also was possible because of your country and the people involved, starting with politicians and the Minister of Defence, and ending with ordinary soldiers who came to Latvia. I think you prepared very well, and now we're already in the second phase, second rotation, and in my view, things are going really well.
Latvia has the biggest NATO mission among three Baltic States and Poland. Interestingly enough, there are more troops in Latvia than in Poland, and Poland itself, who is receiving this help or assistance, has around 200 men and tanks in Latvia. This also shows that it's not only about receiving, it's also about giving. Latvia is the same; we're involved in six missions abroad. Our people, at this time, are serving in Afghanistan, Mali, Iraq, and other missions, so we try to do our best and not just receive help, but also, where we have expertise and knowledge, give it back where it's necessary for our partners, our allies, and NATO in general.
On our part, it was also very challenging, because, as a host nation, we had to put a lot of effort and money to accommodate troops from six different nations. That involved a lot of construction at our biggest military base near Riga Adaži, which is the biggest military training ground in the Baltics.
During the last year, we actually expanded this training ground, so it's even bigger. We spent a lot of money constructing new barracks, so your officers and soldiers are now under roofs since the fall of last year. We are going to construct four more barracks there: two will be fully funded by our budget money and two will be co-financed with Americans.
I'm not going to go deep into these logistical projects, but we have done as much as possible to make your army stay in Latvia not only welcome but useful for your army, because they are staying in the biggest military polygon. They're not just sleeping in the barracks, waking up, doing something, and being just there. No, they are training. They are training together with all the six nations, with Latvians very much involved.
Maybe one thing for the future, and I know there have been talks, but it would be very useful if you were to ask me to suggest something. We started this some years ago with the Americans, and it turned out to be very good. The Americans wanted to test some of their drones in Latvia. For that reason, we had to change some laws, and actually we did. We built airways around Latvia where these drones could fly around. Talking to the American officers there, I found out that this was something they didn't even have in Texas, the kind of territorial possibilities to actually get training, and fly drones close to the border, of course, with Russia.
This is something that maybe could be useful for you. I was surprised. I don't know what kind of situation you have. The Americans have plenty of land, but it turns out that the airspace where they can use these drones is limited, actually, to specific places like military installations, or something. We, in a very quick manner, changed our laws and regulations, and now it's possible. There are special free airways all around Latvia where you can use drones. I think it would be very interesting for your military people.
Another thing that Latvia set up in 2014, with the assistance of NATO, was the NATO Strategic Communications Centre of Excellence. With the geopolitical situations today in the world, and Russian disinformation, and different developments in this field, this has become very useful.
Canada has been involved in this centre of excellence since the beginning, has invested money, and has always had its representatives working in Riga. Right now, there are two Canadians working there. Imagine that this NATO centre of excellence is not working specifically for Latvia. We sometimes laugh that they are not doing enough for Latvia, because they have developed different algorithms to see where the news is coming from on social networks, where our boats are are involved, and where Russia is involved.
They have algorithms, of course, in English and sometimes in Russian, but Latvia is a small nation and a language not spoken widely is not used in this centre of excellence. Anyway, we can learn from what they have found in their studies, and the people working there are really good. It's somewhere also to invest and to get results from.
Maybe I'll stop there. I'm not so good at making long speeches. I'm ready to answer all your questions.
I have to say that, since we became members of the strongest military alliance in the world, it has been very interesting. I will say this is participation in missions abroad. That's where military personnel could get real training—Afghanistan, Iraq, and different other places in the world, Kosovo as well, and Albania, but those were many years ago. However, another thing, of course, is decisions made in the NATO summits in Wales and Warsaw. I think those were very important for us, and now we see the results, six NATO nations being stationed in Latvia.
From the general public's perspective, this is the sense of security, the sense of belonging to the west, to the democratic part of the world. This is hard to explain probably even for ordinary people on the street, but that's how many Latvians—and not only Latvians—who live in Latvia feel. When there was a war in Georgia, not many politicians took notice in the west. But when Russia annexed Crimea and war broke out in the eastern part of Ukraine, many Latvians asked, “What's going to happen if Russia does the same in Latvia?” The older generation had the sense, “Look at Ukraine, especially eastern Ukraine; it has a border with Russia, and so do we”. I had town hall meetings where people were just standing up and saying “Mr. Latkovskis, you were saying we are all fine, but look at the facts. We have a common border. They have a sizable population of Russian speakers. So do we in the eastern part. Those are two things in common.”
Where these people were wrong was that they were comparing apples and oranges. In Latvia, since we regained independence, we chose the course to be again part of the democratic west. We didn't choose some middle path or something wherein, because of the Russian interests in Ukraine, many politicians who were in charge of that country in the 1990s and 2000s chose some middle path, some grey area of security. It's impossible to be secure in a grey area, so Latvia is a NATO member.
Now I'll tell you how I usually explain it to journalists in Latvia and to the general public. You have a security system, which was set up in 1949, and your country was one of the founding fathers of this organization. If something happens, let's say some country attacks a NATO ally, and the NATO countries don't take a decision and don't defend, the whole security system simply collapses. What do you do? Do you choose? If Russia attacks Latvia: “Oh, not so important”. If it attacks Norway: “Maybe a little important”. If it attacks France: “Oh, this is important”. You don't do these things. You don't calculate. Simply, if you don't come and don't defend and don't do something, the whole security system collapses. You only have trust in this because you believe it works. That's how it works.
After that, this explanation was taken on by many other politicians from almost all parties, and it worked for the general public as well. They understood.
What was probably the single most important act was on the part of two countries, actually. When Russia started its actions in Ukraine, two countries immediately made a decision and sent their fighters to the Baltics for air policing missions. Those two countries were the United States of America and Canada.
Everybody knows and remembers the United States of America; rarely, people know and journalists remember that Canada also sent its CF-18s to the Baltics for air policing missions. This is something you should know and that I think you should be proud of. It was important at that time. It was not so much important for Russia, to show that there is a deterrent; it was very important for Latvian people, because what they saw was that in a time of crisis we have friends. Thank you so much.
Ambassador, Mr. Chair, and Colonels, it's good to have you at committee.
I want to direct my questions to Mr. Latkovskis.
First of all, I want to thank Latvia for passing the Magnitsky law. We talked about it briefly last night, the 63 votes and then I think the 37 abstentions. It speaks loudly that Latvia, Canada, the United States, and other European nations are all standing together to hold those corrupt foreign officials and gross human rights violators to account. I know that Russia has been kicking and screaming louder than any other country, but it has global application; it's not just targeted towards the plutocrats in the Kremlin. I want to thank you for that.
I also want to thank Latvia for being such a great host nation to our troops. All the members I have talked to at the Canadian Armed Forces who have been stationed at the enhanced forward position in Latvia have really enjoyed the experience of being there and of working with the very professional armed forces of Latvia as well as of all the other states that are participating in the eFP for NATO. That has been a great learning experience for interoperability and for lessons learned in sharing that experience across countries.
As you know—we talked about it in the past when we were in Riga—we've talked about fake news coming out of Russia and those who are trying to appease Russia within the European context. We even have it here in Canada. We've had some journalists.... One comes to mind. He writes for The Chronicle Herald in Halifax and recently said that having our troops in Latvia is a waste of money and troops. He says it's “to counter a non-existent threat from the Russian bogeyman.”
Even though we have some naysayers here in Canada, how do you, as a former journalist yourself, explain to those in the media and those who want to appease Russia how important it is that we have a presence in the Baltics?
First of all, I don't know this journalist personally, but journalists like that in our country are very often called “useful idiots”. That's the best you can say about them, and there are more serious cases where Russia simply buys people like that. They write whatever they're paid to write. But I'm not talking about this specific article or this specific author. I don't know the person.
In Latvia, we know these things very well. Although we know them very well and have for a very long time, it doesn't necessarily mean that now and then this fake news, or this information, doesn't get to our population. The main targets for this kind of news or information are not politicians, so that article was probably not written for you. It was written for your voters, so they would write a letter or an email to you and say, “What the hell? Why are you spending money somewhere there? We don't care about that.”
You asked the question about Latvia joining NATO in 2004. We joined NATO, and we went on missions to Afghanistan, and I was at the time already in politics and people were asking, “Why Afghanistan? It's so far away.” Even though things are messed up there and torn up like Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Russia, and thousands of kilometres...why do we care, for ordinary people?
We care, first of all, because we are now part of this military alliance. If our friends and partners are involved and have made that decision all together, not alone, we are together with them; and we know, if the day comes, they'll come and help us. That's how we look at the world now. That's why we are involved in six missions, although, when you look at our military, you see it's only 14,000.... We have 6,000 professionals and 8,000 national guards, who are voluntary. It's not like our resources are endless, but we try to do our best. Once things are already set, this actually helps us to get training, get expertise, get to know other army officers and soldiers from other armies, get to know how to work with them, and all of that. Another thing is, of course, that we are now part of this great military alliance, and we're responsible for keeping the world a safe place. That's our responsibility even though we're a small nation. You sign it. You just don't hope that you will be helped. You sign the agreement; you know you are also going to help with this cause. I think that's how democracy works. You want to be part of that world, and you hope that every country becomes democratic at one point or another, and you're helping to keep security around the world, wherever it is. We do that.
In terms of, let's say, Russian military preparedness, the biggest military training in the history of Russia was held last year. It was called Zapad 2017, which translates as the “West 2017”. The exercises stretched from the Black Sea to the border of Norway, including Ukraine as well. It was interesting to watch, because you could make some calculations about what kind of force could be used if there were a conflict. It was interesting to see that the territories covered thousands of kilometres, and the way they conducted the exercise was to cut off the Baltics or NATO, and not only the Baltics, but possible assistance from Norway. This is something we have to take into account.
That's where I can answer your question, and yours as well, because PESCO—an EU military kind of thing.... The one thing we support a lot is the creation of a so-called “military Shengen”, because most of the NATO countries are in Europe, and moving troops and equipment takes a lot of time.
Then there are sovereignly issues. This is so funny, because not many laws have changed since the Cold War ended. During the Cold War, no politicians were asking such questions as how Americans from northern Italy would go to, let's say, Germany's eastern border to help, if Russia attacked. Nobody asked these questions because they would simply go. Now there are many of these questions. How will they cross the border? Will their guns be loaded?
There are problems when you look at the issue in this way, and this is something the EU has said. Really, the EU is not about the military. Latvia joined the EU. Of course, for us, it also gives a sense of security, because you're part of a big economic union or cultural union or whatever. These things simply are very important. Not only politicians are pointing them out, but also the military themselves, who look at logistics and at different kinds of training that have been taking place in Latvia during the last three years and also at the stationing not specifically of your troops, but stationing when the Spanish and Italians came. They are part of this mission in which you are a framework nation. They have to look at logistics: at how they are moving equipment and troops, how much effort it takes, and what kinds of procedures are requested by various countries. It takes some time, and this is stupid.
The EU has to do something about this. That's why it's important. At the beginning we were very skeptical, because we trust in NATO—believe me—very much, but there are issues that the EU can deal with.
It's also a question of research and development in this field. You know, countries that are small compared with yours.... Every bigger country—not the size of Latvia—has its own military production for using choppers and everything. This eats a lot of their resources. Something should be done about these different standards, although there are common NATO standards.
I have heard so much from different politicians. I was once at a big conference in France. It was in the city close to the Channel. At that time they had elections, and the new chair of the defence committee was elected. He was talking to us. He said he didn't want to listen to all the bullshit about standardization and everything. He said he came from this city and everything needed for France would be produced there. Fine, I mean, this is not getting far.
These are the issues the EU has to look at. I don't know how much it can succeed, especially when producing for the military also means people employed, salaries paid, social benefits, whatever. You know this is important. You have to somehow look at some unification in some areas.
I would have loved to have had the opportunity to go to Latvia with the defence committee. We have financial constraints, and so the entire committee couldn't go. It didn't mean that we wouldn't have loved to have gone. We heard all kinds of great information from it. Even though we weren't there, some of us, we were able to benefit from the fantastic trip. Thanks very much.
The reason why we're having this study is to leverage a little bit of what my colleague James was talking about. We are at a point, I think, not only in Canada but in other countries, where the questions are really whether we need NATO, whether we should leave NATO to the Europeans, why NATO matters to Canada, and why Canada matters to NATO. That's the reason we're having this study and bringing people in to testify.
Is Russia really a threat? I think it's a legitimate question. I think people think it's not necessarily about invasion, because of course we do have the enhanced forward presence to be able to mitigate or dissuade from invasion.
You do have an election coming up. We do have an increased prevalence of cyber-threats, misinformation, and all that kind of stuff. Our democracy, of course, is based on our ability to have that information and those democratic conversations with our citizens.
How concerned are you about that kind of interference? How much support are you getting? You mentioned it a bit from the NATO cyber centre of excellence. Do you see that as a threat and to what extent?
In Parliament we have and have always had a pro-Russian party. Years pass and the population changes and older people get older and younger people get voting rights. That party also tries to change. It's very hard because as in every democratic country, the older population has an obligation and goes to elections. Younger people are not so involved, let's say.
With a change of attitudes, the party also tries to change. They have joined a common European network of social democratic parties, and they're going to try to be on two votes at the same time. It's very hard because those who vote for that party, as I said, mostly come from the older generation that grew up and went to war during the Soviet times and watched the news from Moscow. They have some play in their hands.
It's not good for Latvia, of course, but just as I already said, it's very well known to Latvians. It's no surprise. Everybody knows the party, what kind of voters they have, and what kind of issues they deal with. It has all been known since the nineties when they started in 1993. They are there all the time. It's not new. You wouldn't expect developments like there are in the United States where you find out later. Now when something like this appears on a social network, it's very soon pointed out by ordinary people. You don't have to involve special units or the centre of excellence.
By the way, the EU also has a special unit and money devoted to fighting fake news. It's called EU Mythbusters. It works very well. You can find it on Twitter and Facebook. They look at fake news over a longer period—weekly or monthly—and then they show the fake news and show what really happened. They show the fake picture, which has been Photoshopped, and then show the real picture. This is also popular. It works well.
In what way do you mean “corruption”, political corruption?
Very often, there is no proof. Very often, Russia's agenda is like in America, where it coincides with some political party or some candidate's agenda. It doesn't have to be money. It's very often interests that are common. Russia feels it right away, and they abuse this or use this for their own benefit.
I also believe that very often, as it was during the Cold War, there are people who can be bought. There definitely must be politicians who can be bought. Well, excuse me, many people have issues, especially ambitious people such as us.
There are many ways, and Russia uses all of them, as did the Soviet Union. The President of Russia, Putin, was taught in KGB school. People in high positions around him are his former colleagues. The way Russia behaves now and what they are using, the tactics and the strategy, is very similar to what was used.
I recently read an article about how somebody finally got his hands on a KGB manual on how to work with foreigners. I think it's still used today. There are hookers, there is money, there is booze, and all I can advise politicians is to be very careful.
I have been to Moscow myself, before the Ukraine invasion. You get a call during the night in your hotel room and you're offered different things, and it's on you. They will use everything possible if it will coincide with their aims, to achieve something somewhere—I don't know, Canada's position on something, or whatever. I'm not talking just about you, but that's what they use.
Not much has changed. Maybe they have learned more. They are better at cyber things. They understood very quickly that the Internet is a really good thing for their aims, and they are using that.
This is difficult. If it's not going public, I can tell you a bit more. I'm a member of the National Security Council, led by the president. Every month we listen to our security services, and very often they pick up things and pass them to the security services of your country or other NATO countries. It's just interesting. It's interesting to see the way Russian security services work. It's almost as in Soviet times. They have their working hours from 9 to 5. It doesn't matter. You can very often notice that they are Russians because they finish work at 5 o'clock there. In Europe, it would be 3 or 4 o'clock during the day, or in your part of the world it would be different. It's sometimes so easy to detect them because the shift ends with, “I worked my butt off.”
I would advise you, if you are more interested in that subject, to look at the website of the NATO Strategic Communications Centre of Excellence in Riga. They did extensive research where they employed these algorithms. They looked for news or posts on social networks like Twitter and Facebook concerning NATO's forward presence mission. What they came up with was surprising. Of all the posts or tweets about NATO's presence in Latvia, Estonia, Lithuania, or Poland in Russian, 80% of them came from Russia, with bots or somebody writing these things. You have probably read articles about these big houses in St. Petersburg where people are employed to write stuff. It was 80% in English, and 80% in Russian. There was no Latvian because they have problems with the knowledge, and then the centre of excellence is not writing algorithms or generating them in Latvian. It's difficult. We have difficult grammar, so it's difficult for them, but in Russian and English, up to 80%.
They tried their best, but they didn't succeed. Maybe in some parts of the Russian-speaking population in Latvia, it had some effect, but not in a very substantial way. In English, I don't know. Maybe the author who writes those articles follows some of these bots and reads fake news there, but they didn't succeed. They tried, and there was one case.
Right away, after Germans were stationed in Lithuania—a framework nation, like you in Latvia—they put out fake news that Germans raped a young girl. It took Lithuania half a day. There were officials out in the news, and it was on every official news site, putting the facts and saying it's wrong, and where it comes from. It didn't catch on. But Russia tried. They do this. They test and they look. Okay, if it doesn't work they don't employ it, but if something else works they will use that. They're good at it.
We have developed, in many of our countries, cyber-defence. They have developed cyber-attacks. They excel at this. They're probably the best. I don't know if the Americans do that, employ this, but they do, and they are really good. Defending is harder.
It is. Really, I'm also not living in the clouds. I have the opportunity to talk to people on the street.
I don't play ice hockey; I play soccer. I play three times a week, and there are guys from different professions. There are construction workers, teachers, people who own big companies. When they talk to me, it's always about politics, also about security.
In reality, I'm not bragging. It's appreciated. It's very much appreciated.
Some were surprised at the beginning, why Canada? For many years, Canada was out. Even a few were out of Europe.
Now since you're there, no incidents have been recorded involving your troops. They are very active when we have some sports events or so on. We organize and you get involved in being there, showing your equipment, talking to the people, as I said. Many Latvians speak different languages so they have the possibility to talk to you.
I already tried to explain. There was the case of Lithuania, where they did as much as possible at that point, trying to put out fake news about the rape of a young girl. That news didn't fly. They did a lot of posts on Facebook and tweets on Twitter in Russian and English, which were targeted at NATO. In general, the content was more about how NATO is a bad thing and there is no need for NATO to be...and Russia is a nice country. But it didn't go anywhere. It didn't influence societies.
I think you have to take a look at it. They are not trying to target your troops there. They are trying to influence the local population and put them against the troops, but they haven't succeeded.
I told you yesterday, but probably I'll tell you once more. Your ice hockey team, on the way to the Olympic games, had the last friendly game, a training game, and it took place in Latvia. The Latvian national team is coached by a Canadian. I play soccer. I don't know his name—
A voice: Hartley.
Hon Ainars Latkovskis: Hartley. Before that game, the opening ceremony was...our soldiers and your soldiers. The biggest arena in Latvia was full of people. They were rejoicing. They were all happy. There were Canadian and Latvian flags. It was the most-watched game last year.
They are not succeeding; that's the thing. I have to tell you they are not succeeding because, as I said, we know them very well. It doesn't necessarily mean that maybe they'll succeed somewhere. But they try, like with Lithuania. They would probably have tried in Latvia, but then the Germans were first to be stationed there, sooner than the Canadians. They tried there. They looked... “Oh, it doesn't work. Okay, no waste of time.” They have stuff enough to do around the world. They're busy.