Thank you, Mr. Chair.
Mr. Chair, your outline took away a few lines that I had in my speech. Nevertheless, thank you very much for having me here today. It's a great honour to be here among friends and politicians committed to NATO and to alliance generally.
My speech—it is not my speech, actually—is a speech on behalf of Latvian people. It's not only words; it's an assessment of Latvia's people towards Canada and Canadians.
As we celebrate the 98th anniversary of the establishment of our diplomatic relations, we take stock of the positive and friendly relations existing between Latvia and Canada as well as our mutual reasons for looking forward to the future together.
In our actions and policies, Latvia and Canada are like-minded states with common values. We share an interest in a rules-based international order, individual liberty, democracy, human rights and the rule of law. Canada has always been quick to support the aspirations and needs of Latvia's people, and we have always appreciated it. You did not recognize the Soviet annexation of the Baltics; you took in Latvians fleeing prosecution after World War II. In fact, you welcomed and cared for the future president of Latvia, Vaira Vike-Freiberga, together with some of our greatest writers and thinkers, and, on a personal level, members of my own family who are now proud Canadian citizens.
After 50 years of hardship, Canada was the first G7 country to recognize the restoration of Latvia's independence in 1991. Today, we collaborate closely in the United Nations and in NATO, and you also supported us by being the first country to ratify the treaty of Latvia's entry into NATO. While we could not show you the same courtesy and generosity, we did what we could and we were the first EU member state to ratify the significant CETA.
I am very glad to see the steady development of our interparliamentary context as it is important to continue a dialogue between the Saeima foreign affairs committee and the Canadian Parliament's SCFAID. It allows us to exchange views on issues of common interest.
Today, on the centenary of parliament of the Republic of Latvia, at a time when the international situation is volatile, Canada's presence in Latvia matters a great deal. We are marking the 70th anniversary of NATO this year, and Latvia celebrates its 15th anniversary of joining the NATO family. There's no doubt that the alliance remains the key pillar of the security in Europe. As a proud and slightly bemused persona non grata in Russia, I will not try to mince words.
The ongoing Russian aggression against Ukraine and Georgia has disrupted nearly a generation of relative peace and stability between the Kremlin and its western neighbours. President Putin's ulterior motives remain uncertain. In violation of international law, the Kremlin illegally annexed Crimea, a Ukrainian peninsula less than half the size yet slightly more populous than Latvia. Ever since, Russia has been insisting on its military assertiveness, showcasing its conventional power and rattling its nuclear sabre. In Warsaw 2016, NATO leaders gave the signal to put our guard up more visibly so that no one in their right mind could be tempted to test what the alliance is made of.
With Canadian troop deployments to Latvia leading a multinational on-land battle group as a part of NATO's enhanced forward presence, Canada assisted countries like my own in dealing with the new threats and dangers aimed at the heart of universal western values, the rule of law and democratic government. You stepped up, devoting time and resources and demonstrating the kind of leadership we often lack in today's society. It was solidarity in action and a strong signal for deterrence. Your commitment is a clear demonstration of your understanding of today's geopolitical realities.
NATO's northeastern flank is conspicuously exposed. The only territory that connects NATO's European members to the Baltics is the geostrategically important Suwalki Gap, a 100-kilometre border between Poland and Lithuania that adjoins the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad in the west and Belarus in the east. Being surrounded by countries that are not members of NATO makes us, the Baltics, especially vulnerable. We are ready to invest in our defence and we have been doing that for years.
Canada's presence is much appreciated. The eFP framework nation commitment is a genuine Canadian international peacekeeping operation. Contributing to the eFP is Canada's way of paying into an insurance premium to maintain peace and stability in the region.
We highly value Canada's decision to renew its commitment to the NATO mission in Latvia for four years immediately prior to NATO's Brussels summit in July 2018. Once again, you demonstrated strength of character and the wisdom to know what the right decision is. You showed certainty in uncertain times. We honestly look up to you for that.
We have significantly together—Europe and North America—increased the readiness of our forces, triple to the size of NATO's response force, and the Brussels summit marked another addition, the so-called Four Thirties initiative: 30 battalions, 30 warships and 30 squadrons ready within 30 days to bolster combat readiness by easing the transfer of troops across Europe in the event of crisis. As a member of the national guard of Latvia, I have had the pleasure to train alongside your troops and to see the benefit of day-to-day co-operation, of the experience of fighting together. Day by day, we are all becoming stronger and more resilient. We've become brothers and sisters in arms. That, at least, is partially due to Canada's commitment to establish a permanent, rather than rotary, position in Latvia.
The Baltic Defence College co-operates with Canada intensively, enabling cultural exchange and a transfer of valuable knowledge. Together we managed to build and occupy the most modern military polygon in the region. Canadian troops have aided us in learning and practising our skills with the latest military technology and equipment. Our relationship extends beyond NATO in the form of bilateral co-operation.
I really hope that the Canadian troops located in Latvia are at least as happy as we are. I hope that Latvia is a home away from home for many Canadian and allied troops.
Do you know what? Locals like you too. A recent poll showed that nearly half of the people in Latvia believe that the country's security has improved compared to what it was back in 2015. Why is that? It is the presence of NATO allies in Latvia. Hard training and procurement also count. This is now happening at a pace and with an intensity unmatched since the renewal of independence in 1991. Canada is currently winning the hearts and minds of the local population. Around 60% of people in Latvia believe that NATO contributes to their security. This remarkable level of popular support has consecutively remained steady for the past few years. When asked if they can be proud of Latvian soldiers, two-thirds of respondents polled gave a positive answer: yes. Remarkably, the vast majority of Latvians no longer see Russia as an imminent threat. Rather, they view Russia as an aggressor.
A poll commissioned by the Latvian Minister of Defence revealed that only 17% of residents opposed the presence of battalion, while 43% approved of it and 30% were neutral on the issue. At a time when America seems to withdraw from the global stage and the United Kingdom is leaving the European Union, Canada's interest in strengthening traditional alliances is greatly appreciated. Canada is making a profound impact at this time when the international situation far beyond its own borders is so volatile. Canada's presence in Latvia matters a great deal. This, along with the transparency-based approach to its ongoing presence in Latvia, has increased public support and trust in NATO as a whole.
These achievements really are something, but we cannot be lulled into complacency. Russia's behaviour in Crimea and eastern Ukraine brought about a fundamental change in the EU's and NATO's relationships with Moscow. The revival of power politics and thinking in terms of spheres of influence, and the cynicism that Russia has shown for the sovereignty of its neighbouring countries, have an impact on our security analysis and on our policy towards Russia.
We have to stand united against this infringement of international law and respond to Russian behaviour—sensibly, of course. NATO needs to continue adapting to address the evolving challenges. We are not in another Cold War. The new situation is, in a way, more complex. Many common security interests—Iran, Iraq, Syria, and fighting terrorism and extremism—still exist. So does our interdependence. In fact, that's why sanctions are a relatively effective means of applying pressure. Nevertheless, Russia's actions must be a wake-up call to review our defence strategies.
It is important to fully implement NATO's Brussels summit decision in order to improve the alliance's readiness and ability to reinforce. Russia poses challenges on a strategic level, as demonstrated by the violation of the INF treaty, but it also continues to threaten regional security. Continuous strengthening of Russia's military posture, including offensive capabilities, in the Baltic region and in the Arctic, thus impacting Canada's national interests, cannot be justified by purely defensive needs. Russia's ambiguous hybrid warfare, with an increased focus on asymmetric, less conventional military capabilities and activity, has made it considerably more difficult for NATO to counter destabilization efforts, information operations, cyber-attacks, disinformation, propaganda and psychological operations. Ambiguous warfare represents a security challenge not just for the Baltic States but also for NATO as a whole.
In this regard, we welcome intensified co-operation between NATO and UN institutions as well as a close transatlantic partnership to counter hostile state-sponsored disinformation involving Canada, the U.S. and the U.K. The Strategic Communications Centre of Excellence, or NATO StratCom, and the cybersecurity defence in Riga and Tallinn are successful examples of a joint international approach and collaboration for research. We are thankful to Canada for providing generous funding in the creation of NATO StratCom, as you were the instrumental part in helping thoughts become reality in Riga, Latvia. We also congratulate the recent decision to join StratCom. I'm absolutely certain that this co-operation, deepened even further, will let all of us reap the benefits. In principle, the threats analyzed by StratCom and CCD in Estonia are applicable to all NATO allies, and both centres' individual nations require direct participation and a unified approach to these activities.
Additionally, while we invest in analysis and research, we have yet to put to use the conclusions drawn from the work done by, for example, StratCom. There is an urgent need to operationalize the conclusions in the theoretical realm and develop practical and concrete recommendations, action plans and clearly articulated strategies.
In order to guarantee our people the desired level of security, stability and conditions for continued prosperity, the response to these capabilities and practices has to be high on NATO's agenda. This entails enhancing the capacities of StratCom and CCD and strengthening our co-operation with non-NATO institutions to be able to develop integrated and joint responses. Few individual allies have the capacity to counter the multiplicity of unconventional state-sponsored threats, which we must not forget include organized crime, sabotage and other forms of direct action. It is imperative that we share knowledge and provide better dissemination of intelligence across the alliance. Too often, we have seen the damage that the failure to share intelligence has inflicted on our societies. Communication must be more active, indeed proactive, if we are to address these new threats.
Of course, it is not just our military alliance that bonds us together. We invest and we exchange. Canada and Latvia enjoy a mutually beneficial trade and investment relationship. In February 2017, Latvia became the first EU member state to ratify CETA, one of the most advanced and modern trade agreements, the benefits of which we are already reaping. Even though the trade in traditional goods between the countries can be viewed as moderate, in recent years the total level of trade has been substantially boosted by Air Baltic purchases of Bombardier aircraft. We were the first to purchase 20 of these new aircraft for commercial purposes. The $303-million deal was truly substantial, adding to our merchandise trade balance sheet. We've gone from strength to strength. Canada's exports of electrical machinery and equipment to Latvia have increased by 189%. Your imports of prepared meat and fish from Latvia have risen by 700%.
I have spoken quite a bit, so please let me address you now with something that's a bit more lighthearted. In Latvia, Latvians see themselves as connected with Canada. They're drawn to it as a land of promise and a land of refuge for relatives who fled World War II, and also because it's friendly, clean and tough. In connection with this troop deployment, people in Latvia were asked about their association with Canada.
Hockey was the answer given by most. One-third of respondents thought of hockey when they were thinking of Canada. We are importing coaches from Canada. Our world championship team is coached by a Canadian, Bob Hartley from Hawkesbury, Ontario. Before Hartley, we had Chief Ted Nolan. We have seen that Canadian coaches give us an edge and in 2014, Latvia came awfully close to beating Canada in the Sochi Olympics quarter-finals.
Around a tenth of Latvians polled said that in their mind's eye they saw wealth and prosperity in Canada. They saw Canada's maple leaf logo, maple syrup and lots of trees beside maple trees. They also saw plants, shrubbery, forests, rivers, mountains, birds of prey, polar bears and life on earth in all its natural beauty.
Canada and Latvia are allies, friends and partners in many ways and I'm honoured to be here today to further strengthen our relations. I very much look forward to a continued friendship and collaboration.
I will be more than happy to take any questions you might have.
Again, thanks for a very warm welcome.