When Master Cpl. Josaphat Nicolas-Marchal arrived for his deployment to the Adazi military base in Latvia in December, Western intelligence officials had just begun warning that Russia might be about to invade Ukraine.
Now, four months after the soldier’s rotation, NATO is trying to dissuade Russia from launching further offensives and is increasing the number of troops deployed in Eastern Europe.
“It’s very different for us, because now we’re close to what’s happening,” said Nicolas-Marchal, who is normally stationed at CFB Valcartier in Quebec but previously served NATO missions in Poland and Iraq.
“Whatever happens can happen in Ukraine, or in the whole world,” he said. “We can keep training together and be ready if someone sends us somewhere.”
The master corporal is one of about 700 Canadian soldiers stationed at Camp Adazi, a Western alliance military base and training camp 25 kilometers from Riga, the Latvian capital.
Canada’s military presence in the country grew last month when an artillery battery of 120 soldiers and cannons arrived from Quebec.
Given the heightened security threat, Canada has extended its mission in Latvia indefinitely. The Latvian Defense Ministry told CBC News that the government hopes to further strengthen the contingent and develop it into a true “combat unit.”
But as Latvia seeks to bolster its defenses, not everyone living near the base is reassured by the growing number of troops, and some fear it could make the region a bigger target for Russian aggression.
When CBC News visited the base on Monday, dozens of Canadian soldiers were participating in weapons training. In one area, soldiers fired high-powered rifles at targets at close range, trying to simulate a battle in an urban setting such as a city street or inside a building.
Canada has the largest contingent in Latvia, but around 800 soldiers from 10 different NATO countries are also stationed there, including soldiers from the Czech Republic, Spain and Slovakia.
“It means a lot to us to be here to contribute to the current situation that is evolving in Ukraine,” said Maj. Anne Pham, commander of Battle Group Phoenix newly deployed to Latvia.
Last month, Latvian Defense Minister Artis Pabriks met with his Canadian counterpart, Defense Minister Anita Anand, in Ottawa to discuss security and bilateral cooperation.
That meeting came a few weeks after Prime Minister Justin Trudeau toured the Latvian base, where he officially announced that Canada would extend its contribution to the mission beyond 2023, when it expired.
NATO has four multinational battle groups spread across Eastern Europe and recently Announced that forces will be deployed in four more countries (Slovakia, Hungary, Bulgaria and Romania) to try to prevent the war from spreading to Ukraine’s neighbours.
In Adazi township, a community of 12,000 that borders the base, those who live there can sometimes hear artillery fire during practice exercises.
Residents who spoke to CBC News near the city center gave differing views on NATO’s burgeoning mission.
Some expressed fear that the additional troops could provoke Russia.
“If NATO is going to get involved, we have no idea what will happen to us here,” said Adazi resident Ligita Voitkane. “It’s not just the base that will suffer, our entire small town here as well.”
Ksenija Gontiare, a mother who pushes her nine-month-old baby in a stroller, also said NATO’s presence made her uneasy.
She has relatives in kyiv, but said she is still concerned about the billions of dollars worth of weapons being shipped from NATO countries to Ukraine, as she worries it could lead to an escalation of violence.
On Tuesday, a Kremlin-backed media outlet quoted Maria Zakharova, the Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman, as saying that the European Union has become an “aggressive war machine of NATO.”
But Adazi resident Victoria Zelca believes Russia may decide to invade Latvia, saying she takes comfort in knowing the base is nearby.
“We are a neighboring country and we can be included in the war,” he said. “They want land…there is the Baltic Sea, which they could use for transportation and deliveries.”