Sweden set to join Canadian-led brigade in Latvia once roadblocks to NATO membership end


Canada has more at stake than meets the eye in the long, drawn-out geopolitical drama over Sweden’s bid to join NATO.

Sweden’s full membership in the military alliance is being blocked by Turkey and Hungary. The Nordic country is also set to play an important role in the multinational brigade that Canada is leading in Latvia.

“That’s the plan,” said Vice-Admiral Bob Auchterlonie, the Canadian military’s operations commander, in a recent year-end interview with CBC News.

The brigade is expected to be fully operational next summer. In addition to the possible participation of the Swedes, the brigade also will include a sizable contingent of Danish troops who are already in the Baltic country but are not operating with the existing Canadian-led battlegroup.

“We’re working heavily with our Spanish allies,” said Auchterlonie. “We’re going to lead with the Danes, and with Sweden, soon to be allies there.”

Sweden’s participation in the brigade depends on it joining NATO first. Meeting with his Swedish counterpart in Stockholm on Monday, Latvia’s foreign minister Krišjānis Kariņš suggested he was confident the obstacles to Sweden’s NATO membership will soon be gone.

Turkey has delayed ratification of Sweden’s membership for more than a year. The government of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan accuses Stockholm of not taking seriously enough Turkey’s security concerns regarding Kurdish militants.

On Tuesday, Erdogan said his country’s parliament could move toward ratification when it sees positive developments on Turkey’s pitch to purchase F-16 fighter jets from the U.S., and on Canada’s arms embargo.

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan has linked his country’s approval of Sweden’s membership in NATO to U.S. and Canadian sales of military technology. (Murad Sezer/Reuters)

The federal government suspended the export of some drone technology to Turkey in 2020 after concluding the equipment had been used by Azerbaijan’s forces fighting Armenia in the enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh, where fighting again erupted this year.

On the margins of last summer’s NATO summit, Canada quietly agreed to reopen talks with Turkey about lifting export controls.

Unlike some allies leading military formations in Estonia and Lithuania, Canada has struggled to meet its commitment to establish a full brigade — something Auchterlonie attributed in part to geography. The United Kingdom and Germany are relatively close to the Baltics, he said, while Canada has to bring its troops and equipment across the Atlantic Ocean.

The absence of barracks and training grounds in Latvia is also a problem, Auchterlonie said.

Officers in combat gear stand in a circle.
Sweden’s Commander-in-Chief Micael Byden, centre, and Poland’s Commander-in-Chief General Rajmund Andrzejczak, right, talk to conscripted tank crews during the Aurora 23 military exercise at the Rinkaby firing range outside Kristianstad, Sweden on May 6, 2023. (Johan Nilsson/Associated Press)

Gen. Micael Bydén, Sweden’s top military commander, advised Sweden’s government last year to commit troops to one of the NATO battle groups once the NATO accession process is completed.

The think-tank Stockholm Free World Forum recommended in a report last summer that Sweden consider joining the brigade in Latvia with a mechanized battalion of troops. The report said there would be a “strategic benefit to placing Swedish troops under the Canadian-led force based on the common interests of Sweden and Canada.”

The Swedish Ministry of Defence did not respond to a request for comment on Tuesday. The country’s embassy in Ottawa also declined, saying the ambassador was out of the country and unavailable.

Auchterlonie said the brigade in Latvia will conduct a major training exercise next summer after its headquarters — which is initially being drawn from the 5th Canadian Mechanized Brigade in Valcartier, Quebec — is established.

The Canadian contingent was bolstered recently by the arrival of 15 Leopard 2 tanks and the planned purchase of modern anti-tank weapons for ground troops.

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