03/22/2018 14:37 EDT | Updated 03/23/2018 10:02 EDT

NATO trying to get better at predicting Russia's next move: Latvian commander

OTTAWA — While NATO is determined to improve its ability to predict the Kremlin's next move, a senior Latvian commander concedes that Russian President Vladimir Putin has managed to keep the military alliance guessing in recent years.

"The Kremlin so far has been winning in surprising us," Latvian army commander Col. Ilmars Lejins told The Canadian Press during a visit to Ottawa on Thursday.

"We're always second guessing. The West as a whole, NATO as a whole. Let's say it very frankly, we have been surprised every time Putin makes a move."

Among the victories credited to Moscow's unpredictability is its invasion of Georgia in 2008 and its annexation of Crimea in 2014 and subsequent support for separatist rebels in eastern Ukraine.

The latter two combined with concerns about Russia's broader intentions in eastern Europe are the reason Canada agreed to lead a NATO battlegroup in Latvia, one of four such multinational forces in the area.

The fog that has surrounded Moscow's decision-making was highlighted in a report last month by the Rand Corp., a respected U.S. think-tank that said the West missed numerous warning signs before Russia's recent actions.

The report called for a renewed effort to better understand Russia and what makes it tick — which Lejins said his country, its neighbours and NATO as a whole are actively working to realize.

"We are making serious efforts in creating our own indication and warning system in order to become better in trying to decipher what the Kremlin actually does," the Latvian commander said.

The Canadian-led battlegroup, which became officially operational last summer, includes 450 Canadian soldiers along with counterparts from several other European nations and ostensibly reports to Lejins.

Similar forces have been established in neighbouring Estonia and Lithuania as well as Poland, with the aim to make the Kremlin think twice before launching an attack as it would bring a unified response from the whole of NATO.

Yet the Rand Corp. and others have warned that these tripwires, as the battlegroups are described, would do little to stop Russia from rolling through the Baltics and seizing large parts of Europe before NATO can respond.

Pushing back against such suggestions, Lejins argued that the Latvian military would be able to hold out longer than most experts believe and that the battlegroups are more like "speed bumps" than tripwires.

Relations between NATO and Russia have sunk to their lowest levels since the Cold War, while Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Thursday that Putin needs to start playing a more positive role in the international community.

Lejins said there have been no signs of de-escalation by Russia along its border with his country since the Canadian-led battlegroup arrived last summer, though there haven't been any signs of escalation either.

"There haven't been any major changes in Russian behaviour," he said. "It's more or less the same, so it's not been more and it's not been less."

While that raises hopes for an eventual dialogue that will lead to an easing of tensions, Lejins said it also raises the question of whether Russia has something else up its sleeve.

"It's like a chessboard," he said.

— Follow @leeberthiaume on Twitter.

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