Interview: Canadian Ambassador on his country's strong ties to the Baltics

Canadian Ambassador to Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, H.E. Mr. Kevin Rex (left) with Estonian foreign minister Urmas Reinsalu.
Canadian Ambassador to Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, H.E. Mr. Kevin Rex (left) with Estonian foreign minister Urmas Reinsalu. Source: Ministry of Foreign Affairs

Canada has always been a nation with a deep resonance in the hearts of many Estonians. The country opened its doors to many people who were displaced by the Soviet occupation at the end of World War Two, but, perhaps now more than ever, the relationship is significant in working both ways with the establishment of a Canadian-led NATO battlegroup in neighboring Latvia, and all the boosts that gives in links in the spheres of business, culture and more. We caught up with Kevin Rex, Canada's ambassador to all three Baltic States, to find out more about this very special relationship.

A native of Montreal, Kevin Rex is coming up to his first anniversary on the job, which he officially started in October last year. He is based in Riga most of the time, visiting Tallinn two or three times a month. So how has work gone so far, and what was Kevin's background up to now?

"I was an adviser at the Privy Council – equivalent to the cabinet office in the U.K., say, which is an apolitical role where you serve whoever is the incumbent. In my case I served under Paul Martin and then Stephen Harper," says Kevin, referring to Canada's 21st and 22nd prime ministers.

"Next I went on to the Canadian International Development Agency, which was a body involved in humanitarian aid which has since been absorbed into the foreign ministry. I was involved with the disaster assistance response team (DART) which is a military component of civilian-led responses to international disasters, traveling to Haiti after the 2010 earthquake, which was horrendous, and also to Nepal."

Despite being from the suited, civilian side of the street, Kevin does have military experience under his belt too.

"I was in the army reserves as an officer in a Highland regiment," he says, noting Canada's strong Scottish connections and heritage.

"This is more usual for my U.S. colleagues than in Canada, but was valuable experience. That said I joined quite late, though my subsequent career path owes a lot to those times."

One ambassador, three embassies

Moving forward to today, Canada's foreign mission in the Baltics covers all three nations. As noted, Kevin is mostly based in Riga, but also visits Vilnius regularly. This is more the norm than having individual missions in each country, he tells me.

Ambassador of Canada to Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania Mr. H.E. Kevin Rex. Source: Office of the Embassy of Canada to Estonia

"The bigger embassies such as the U.S. and U.K. have an ambassador in all three Baltic States, but many of us have one covering all three, or Estonia covered from an embassy in Helsinki, or even, as in the case of many of the Latin American countries, the region can be covered from the embassy in Warsaw. We're lucky enough to have a permanent office in all three countries, though."

Other nations such as Australia have approached the Baltics by having a "pop-up" embassy, in Tallinn for a few weeks or months at a time.

Deep-seated links

The real reason for Canada's relatively strong showing in the Baltics is the presence of the Canadian-led NATO enhanced Forward Presence (eFP) battlegroup in Latvia, of which more later. But what about Canadian-Estonian relations; these run quite deep, not least with the large Estonian diaspora community there, and the fact that Canada was the first G7 nation to recognize independence for all three Baltic States.

"The new Estonia House building is going to be on-site at the University of Toronto, but there are far more connections," Kevin says.

"Vaira Vīķe-Freiberga, Latvian president in the early 2000s, grew up in Canada, and several Estonian ambassadors were born in Canada, returning to Estonia with the restoration of independence. More recently there was a military-musical exchange, where the Central Band of the Canadian Armed Forces came over to Latvia and Estonia this year around the time of Canada Day (Jul. 1), with a Latvian band making the return trip later, taking both the musical culture of the Baltics with them as well as a military panache. There's even to my knowledge at least one woman who was originally from Latvia and emigrated to Canada when she was very young, later joining the Canadian military and returning to Latvia with the same trip," Kevin says.

But it hasn't all been plain sailing. A minor storm at least in the Baltic States erupted a few years ago when current prime minister Justin Trudeau, in answer to an informal question as part of a '60-second challenge' on which his favorite Baltic State was, replied "that isn't a thing."

MEPs from all three countries produced their own, good-natured, Christmas message in return, with Kaja Kallas and Urmas Paet making up the Estonian contingent. But it turns out the original phraseology used was misinterpreted.

"What the prime minister meant was you can't pick a favorite, when you're coming in as prime minister of a sovereign nation, you're not going to say 'oh, I prefer Lithuania over Latvia and Estonia' for instance (Justin Trudeau even implied the same point regarding two provinces of Canada, and even two types of car, in the same interview clip-ed.). That's what he meant by 'not a thing', not the Baltic States themselves, which of course he was well aware of being a political figure, he had been in a relationship with someone from the Baltics earlier on, the Baltic States had already been in NATO several years by that time, and as we'll see the prime minister visited Latvia personally later on. There's no right answer to a question like that of course, but very cleverly the Baltic leaders did the social media response of their own, all in good fun."

Ballooning presence

In any case, so far as Canada goes, the Baltics very much are a thing.

"We have a steady-state presence of 663 government of Canada officials in 13 different offices across the three countries, making it in fact our largest presence anywhere in the world, except for the U.S., and we're very proud of that. It's our biggest thing on the planet in effect, bigger than our presence in Brussels or Paris or London for instance. Principally this is because of the battlegroup of course (who make up the bulk of the total-ed.) but there are smaller elements which don't get nearly as much coverage. The epicenter of activity is in Latvia (the Canadian-led battlegroup is based at Ādaži, just northeast of Riga-ed.) but also the deputy commandant at the defense college in Tartu is a Canadian, there are two Canadian officers at the Estonian NATO Force Integration Unit, and we have a commitment from PM Trudeau to send one or two Canadians to the Cooperative Cyber Defence Centre of Excellence (CCDCOE) here in Tallinn too."

"Our embassy in Riga went from one of the smallest in Europe as a single-person office, to 10 diplomats plus staff in Tallinn and Vilnius."

"The number isn't static either, and can rise to as high as around 900 Canadians in the country depending on what is happening. Add to that those permanently located with Task Force Latvia, who have brought their family members with them. There are around 140 spouses, children, from Halifax or Toronto or British Columbia or all across the country living in Riga at present, attending international schools, joining choirs, playing on hockey teams, as well as renting apartments and so on, so we at the embassy have organized events just for them, with hockey, face painting etc. They've made that commitment too, and we've not seen anything like it since the Cold War, so it's a really big deal."

The NATO eFP battlegroup

The battlegroup is the driving force behind Canada's presence in the Baltics taking pride of place as its highest profile outside North America is one of four in the region. After the 2016 Warsaw Summit saw NATO making a pledge to some of its easternmost members in Europe to provide a battlegroup, by the following year this became a concrete reality, with one in Poland and each of the Baltic States, each led by one NATO state (though under local command) and joined by allies. ERR News has already met members of the British-led eFP at Tapa, in Estonia, as well as their commanding officer, so it was logical to take a look at what is going on with their counterpart in neighboring Latvia.

"I can't speak for Estonia and Lithuania, but Canada takes pride in being part of every NATO exercise, so when we were asked to lead the eFP, before my term began, it was a great fit. The main difference between the eFP battlegroup in Latvia is diversity. We have 10 member nations in the group at present, including the host nation, which is just over a third of the entire NATO membership (in comparison, the battlegroup at Tapa generally has less than half that number of participant nations at any one time-ed.). That makes for a unique element, and if you get the chance to visit the base when they parade on weekends, you'll see Italians, Spanish, Czech, Slovak, Slovene, Polish, Albanian and Montenegrin troops, as well as Canadians, so there's a huge mix of accents, drills and so on. If you could bottle that and ship it round the world it'd be great."

Flags of all current participating nations in the NATO eFP in Latvia. Source: NATO enhanced Forward Presence Battle Group Latvia Social Media page

"We fancy ourselves as middle power, punching above our weight, a bridge builder, and you see that on the ground there too," says Kevin, when asked if there was anything more uniquely Canadian about the group.

Learning curve

Naturally that level of diversity is going to bring challenges, not least with a buzz-word that comes up a lot when talking about NATO battlegroups: Interoperability.

"When a new commander arrives – they're on rotation four or five at the moment – they do some great presentations looking back on where we are now, where we've evolved to, for example if we use the truck from one country, to hitch to the trailer from another country which carries the armored vehicle from a third; that's not really something which has happened elsewhere before. Also, they didn't need paperwork at NATO headquarters in Belgium or the senior brass to get involved – this was all worked out at Lieutenant Colonel level, and the lessons then learned and adopted going forward."

"Different countries' personnel can plug different gaps in areas of expertise – just to give one example, the Czechs have a mortar platoon there. This is arranged half a year in advance, military-to-military, where we decide for instance, that Canada can bring light armored wheeled vehicles, but not tracked vehicles, who is going to slot into what and how."

"Both Latvia and Estonia are world leaders in cyberwarfare, having the output from a major state broadcaster(s) crossing over the border, something we don't have in Canada."

"The whole concept is new and still being tried and tested. I joke with the battlegroup commanders when they're leaving rotation, that they should go off and write their memoirs right away. How many Lieutenant Colonels have been able to pick up that degree of tactical oversight over so many countries in such a short space of time. One of the commanders actually said to me that what you could learn in six months in the Latvian battlegroup, would take more like three years back home, and I imagine it would be the same for all the other battlegroups."

The Canadian-led and British-led battlegroup being next door to each other also brings some continuity as well – apart from anything else, there is a British base in the Province of Alberta which is used for tank training in particular, taking advantage of the wide open spaces which are more in short supply at home, as some of the British soldiers in the armored regiment at Tapa, and the armored infantry regiment that was there earlier in the year, had already pointed out.

Canadian personnel stationed with the NATO eFP in Latvia, being inspected by Latvian and Canadian officers. Source: NATO enhanced Forward Presence Battle Group Latvia Social Media page

But of course it's not just a fun trip away from home for allied countries' militaries to get to know each other even better. There is a more serious side to this. The Warsaw summit was a direct response to the 2014 annexation of Crimea by the Russian Federation and the ongoing warfare in the easternmost region of Ukraine, in the context of the Georgian war several years earlier.

Justin Trudeau himself, when he visited Latvia in connection with the battlegroup last July, said that: "We certainly hope that the message is passed clearly to President Putin that his actions in destabilizing and disregarding the international rules-based order that has been successfully underpinned by NATO among others over the past 75 years or so is extremely important," adding that: "We certainly hope that Russia will choose to become a more positive actor in world affairs than it has chosen to be in the past."

This is obviously a very clear and unambiguous statement, but does it mean that the NATO presence in the region might expand, both in terms of existing battlegroups and even member states (given Sweden and Finland are not members of the alliance) or is it more likely to have a use-by date, so far as we can tell right now?

"We're not using language like 'cold war', but the main thing is we're supporting a fellow ally that asked us to be here, followed by decision made in Brussels. This is really about reassuring the local population that we have your back, and that you get something for signing up."

"In terms of military spend it's reasonable in the overall scale of things – Latvia and Estonia both meet the two percent of GDP spend requirement, and each country has made its own contribution with its own deadline, for instance Slovakia's parliament just did so, as it does every 12 months. Canada's commitment is unusual in that stretches to 2023, but absent a significant political shift that downplays tensions in the region, there's no talk or speculation about slowing activities. Maintaining a robust presence, almost all of NATO is here in one form or another."

But isn't all this at the expense of Canadian-Russian relations? The current prime minister's father, Pierre Trudeau, was famous for a more detente-based approach towards the Soviet Union when he headed up the country, and really blazed the trail both in dealings with that state as well as communist China, visiting Beijing before Richard Nixon's famous trip there in 1972. Doesn't the eFP run counter to this tradition?

"In my last job in Ottawa was responsible for bilateral relations with non-EU Europe, which includes Russia. It's not like something has dramatically changed. The mission is not a poking exercise, it's a domestic reassurance mission, though naturally it's no secret that Canadian-Russian, relations along with much of the rest of the West, have been challenging, especially since 2014."

Even within the eFP itself in Latvia, things have not always been controversy-free. A National Post story told of complaints within the eFP itself and its connection with command at home with Canada, with accusations of harassment, lack of communication, even cartoons satirizing what was seen as shortcomings down the chain of command.

"Yes, the Estonian press just picked up on that recently. But if you read the recent articles, they reference a report that is 16 months old, and dating from the early days of the eFP. We just had the 24-month anniversary of the battlegroup in Latvia, so this is a bit dated now. A lot of the individuals involved at the time, with the rotation system and everything, no longer are, and we've resolved and ironed out these issues."

Trailblazer in diversity

Canada also brings some good examples in terms of its approach to diversity.

"On gender, for instance, Canada has a leadership role here regarding the issue of women in security, something we've actively followed, and we even have a gender adviser to the military, which is something unique. Yes, the military tends to be a bit more conservative than society as a whole, but this is still something we're actively working on. Latvia too has a high proportion of women personnel in its armed forces. Toronto is about the most diverse city on the planet, and the regiment forming the core of the last rotation was French speaking – as an ambassador I have to be bilingual and in fact we get tested on our second language every five years."

Of course, one area where Canadian personnel do not need any experience is in cold weather warfare.

"Yes, it's moderately lukewarm in winter here compared with much of Canada but still, there's an opportunity for both personnel from sunnier climes such as Spain and Italy to get some cold weather experience, and we can pass on our own know-how in this area, so it's a two-way thing."

Looking ahead

What about the situation now, and moving forward. As noted Canada is committed to 2023, but what about after that?

"Just tonight we've got the reserve military organizations' dinner, which Estonia hosts the rotating chair, so it's nice to get that overlap between military and civilian aspects."

"We've got the Admiral Pitka Challenge coming up in Estonia, with a Canadian team entering for the first time ever – Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry, so obviously I'm hoping they'll do well. The requirements are tough though, around 90 km point to point, while evading capture and carrying heavy loads, so it will be a great experience and team-building exercise too."

Main Battle Tank in Canadian service in action on the firing range at Ādaži. Source: NATO enhanced Forward Presence Battle Group Latvia Social Media page

"They're building a new headquarters in Riga as we speak – this requires extra personnel of course. We're all waiting to see what happens after the next election in Canada (in October-ed.). And the exercises go on. Adazi, where the eFP is based, as a wider area for armored vehicles' live firing, so the British troops come down for that. I've watched it take place, it's really cool to see nine or 10 different tanks from the same number of nationalities all firing at the same time."

Outreach is key

"Engaging via social media is of course important too, showing the public what's going on here and to people back home as well. It's very open and transparent, with a public dimension, with the media and embassies closely involved, and there's even drone footage of those exercises which are very much open to the public for viewing."

"When the eFP was launched it was big news in Canada. As noted prime minister Trudeau visited, and there was a big spike in interest when the extension to 2023 was announced. Certainly from the government's side it's seen as a success story, but also, there's the opportunity that personnel coming here have to forge relationships which will last throughout their careers – people who are Majors at the moment might be Brigadiers or higher later on, and have that shared experience and camaraderie."

Canadian personnel presenting their kit to the Latvian public at an open day. Source: NATO enhanced Forward Presence Battle Group Latvia Social Media page

In fact, if Canada's eFP commitment continues further, with rotations every six months, it is very possible that almost everyone in the Canadian military will have passed through Aidazi, Latvia and the Baltics at some point.

"We've also taken a lot of notice of the Brits' playbook with all the work that Theresa Bubbear (the current U.K. ambassador-ed.) has been doing in outreach to communities.

"We had a program called 12 in 12, where we visited 12 communities in Latvia in 12 months. There are two-and-a-half-day outreach packages which cover the whole spectrum, local government, a separate commercial program and links with local industry and business, lectures and visits to schools and of course parades and exhibitions. I don't get quite as much interest being in a suit, but of course the uniforms and equipment are a huge draw, and it's great to see all the Canadian and Latvian flags flying side-by-side, as well as those of our other allies.

"We've even had cultural nights, with for instance a recent showing of a French-Canadian movie from Quebec. Some of the towns are quite small, say around 30,000 so you really feel like you've reached out to every man, woman and child there.

"Ultimately, there are always many unintended, positive consequences arising from the eFP and Canada's relations with the three Baltic states, and that is only going to continue in future, which can only be a good thing."

Editor: Andrew Whyte

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