Saturday, June 24, 2023

Week 1 in Hot Spain

I loved La Man of La Mancha musical
so loved this statue in Madrid and
the Dulcinea stores on the road
 Turns out Spain is hot in mid/late June.  Who would have thought it?  Today's 109F in Seville may not be a new high for me--I forget if it ever got to 110 in ye olde Lubbock.  But like Lubbock, it was not a very wet heat, so not nearly as unpleasant as a summer in NY in between college and grad school.  Helps that the hotels and car have been nicely air conditioned unlike the apartment I stayed and unlike half of the subway cars.  Anyhow, I am in Spain with Mrs. Spew on a long delayed anniversary trip/EISS conference.  At the end of the road, I go to the European Initiative on Security Studies annual meeting.  I have been to the ones in Lisbon and Paris, so, yeah, networking can be pretty terrific. And the aim is to build bridges between the CDSN and European defence/security folks.  And to eat really, really well.  

So, before the conference, we started in Madrid, went to Toledo, Cordoba, and now Sevilla.  We go to Ronda, Malaga, Granada, and Valencia before the conference in Barcelona.  Surprisingly, this is our first Euro trip together.  Parenthood and pethood and other stuff kept my wife from joining me on most work trips, although she did join me in Japan for part of my last sabbatical.  I had a taste of Spain thanks to a week in between two Euro conferences in 2019, including the EISS in Paris. My wife's college Euro trips skipped Spain, so this is all new to her. 

So, what have we learned thus far?  I will break it up into the cities we have seen thus far.


  • Maybe four museums in one day is a bit much?  Prado had a lot of older art, Reina Sofia had some great Picassos and especially Dalis.  The Naval Museum was interesting--not much mention of 1588, but I did learn that the Spanish Navy opted for the 100 duck-sized horses--small torpedo boats when dreadnoughts were becoming the fashion, and this helps to explain why they lost in 1898.  The archeology museum was interesting, but man, were we tired.
  • Some great food neighborhoods--just tapas place after tapas place after tapas place.  I also went on a sangria run as I drank that stuff for every non-breakfast meal for a few days.  
  • We couldn't figure out how to get a metro card--the  machines to load them were easy to figure out, but getting a card was not.  So, we cabbed a lot.


  •  Do not drive in Toledo's old city.  The roads are super narrow, so going in was a bit scary and leaving was positively nerve-wracking.  We had to get a lot of help from the manager at the hotel to direct our compact but not tiny rental car into the garage.  The next morning, every alarm on the car was blaring as we eked past a tight spot without scraping the mirrors.  Yowza.
  • I am pretty sure Inigo Montoya's father is from Toledo as knives and swords were the most popular tourist items.  We went to a shop that made the real things, yet I still bought a touristy dagger, as the real thing would cost 1000 Euros.  I will be unprepared for the zombies as a result.  The Predator here was just one example of old artisan work--sharp steel stuff--meeting pop culture as Assassin's Creed dude was also in a window plus ohters.
  • For a small old study, it had a lot of cobblestones and a lot of hills--I wore out Mrs. Spew as I tried to see the town from all the angles.  
  • Our hotel had a lovely terrace at the top, where I got to chat with a nice couple from Guatemala/Mexico. The husband offered me some wine, and it would have been rude to refuse.  It was a very nice conversation, and I am

    glad I wandered up there.
  • Right now, Toledo may be my favorite Spanish city, edging out my memories of Barclona.


  • I was reminded that rival religions would put their new religious spot directly on top of the previous one to make theirs supreme.. for the moment.  I learned that in Israel, and it applies here as well.  Mezquita is a former Mosque where a cathedral was built over it.  I wondered how the Muslim tourists felt about this.  It was a beautiful and very different cathedral--more square, for one thing, and just amazing tiles and arches and design.
  • Spain has its own French toast--torrejas!  Yum.  Not quite Hoshinos level, but outstanding.
  • Lots and lots of olive groves and maybe orange tree groves in between the cities.  
  • Once I got out of Toledo, the driving got much less stressful. 





  • I forgot that Flamenco dancers are so very serious.  I saw a show four years in Barcelona. This show here was much smaller and improvised apparently (Mrs. Spew didn't think it was as improvised as they said it was.)
  • A dry heat is not as bad as a wet one--109 today was not great, but not awful.  We did ok, and, yes, we did siesta.  
  • the Royal Alcazar had more and more gardens so much so that we got turned around.  Good thing we had peacocks, peahens, and peakids to entertain us. Oh and tile, heaps and heaps of tile.  Mrs Spew was expecting displays of armor, but we got heaps of tile instead.



  • Had perhaps the best meal thus far.  All of the food has been excellent, but the meal tonight competes well with the lunch we had at the place around the corner from our Toledo hotel.  Just a special dinner of very small, very tasty dishes.  Oh and silly names.





So far, we have found great food, friendly people, beautiful art, and a lot of heat.  Oh and some very true words:


Saturday, June 17, 2023

More Spideys, More Rankings, More Better

 Back in the days of yore, I used to talk about and rank pop culture a fair amount here.  So, with my fave comic book character getting another fantastic movie, tis time to rank again.  Spidey was always my favorite.  I used to collect multiple spidey comic books  every month pretty much for all of the 1980s and stopped only in the mid-1990s for two reasons: the increasingly expensive comic books were roughly a month's worth of diapers and it was diaper changing time; and clones.  The spidey series went deep into clones, and I did not like that very much.  Multiverses?  That is something else entirely.  

When the first Tom Holland movie came out, I ranked the Spidey movies.  That was four spidey movies and a heap of appearances elsewhere ago.  I will start each category with the previous ranking and now how it has changed both due to re-watching and the addition of the new movies.  To be clear, there are now ten movies to rank: Tobey's S1, S2, S3; Andrew's S4, S5; Tom's S6, S7, S8, and Shameik's S9, S10.  

Spoilers below the break.

Wednesday, June 14, 2023

That Time of Year

It takes a team.  L-R: Jean Daudelin,
Marshall, Teddy Samy.
 Despite being in this business for, gulp, nearly 30 years (September is the 30th anniversary of my first day as prof), I have rarely gone to graduations.  I tend to be traveling in June, which is Carleton's grad time, and the various places I have been didn't have a culture of all the profs showing up.  But I did recently and belatedly invest in ye olde regalia with a spiffy, puffy chapeau, so I may show up at a few more before I hang up my blazer with patched elbows.

Many of my Phd students didn't stick around for graduation either, so I don't have much practice hooding my students.  The fun yesterday was that Marshall Palmer is easily my tallest PhD student, so, yeah, I didn't do it so well.  But we got through it.  Marshall finished faster than any other student I have had, and he didn't do that by cutting corners.  He won a Senate Medal for one of the best dissertations at Carleton this year.  I found myself very frustrating when reading the drafts of his chapters, as I had very little to say--they were all on target, clear, and close to ready to go.  And the topic is mildly relevant--foreign election interference!  Which is dominating Canadian politics right now.  

I was the 2nd reader
on Brittany's
Master Research Paper
 Carleton splits all the graduations into segments, so our session was focused on the International Affairs, Public Policy and Admin, Social Welfare, and Infrastructure programs.  Which kept things snappy.  I got to see several students from my classes and CDSN-ing walk yesterday.

Margarita took my civ-mil class
this winter

Jace was also in my civ-mil
class this winter.

Gabriel was a CDSN
research assistant last year.
You can see him in the screen
in front of him

Hats were not much of a thing at yesterday's ceremony--none of the students had them, and few of the faculty.  Which made it easier to rock the second best chapeau.  Dean Brenda O'Neil had the best. 

And, yes, one of the problems with using blogspot is having limited control over picture placement.

Anyhow, we are super proud of these ex-students. Rock on!

Saturday, June 10, 2023

The Big Lessons from A Week Near the Front

 Tis a dramatic title as we were nowhere near the battlefield, but the atmosphere here is very distinct from the US, Canada, and my last Germany trip.  War is not only nearby but is viewed as close to inevitable.  The perception of risk is quite high.  I kept asking: but the Russian military is weaker than we thought.  They kept responding that Russia can rebuild and can be stupid/risk acceptant again.  I am still a skeptic since that magical line separating NATO and non-NATO seems to be quite powerful.  But I don't pay much of a price if I am wrong--they do.

And then they mention Trump and I get it.  Nobody here wants Trump back, as they know he would be quick to sell them out.  Which, of course, raises the question why Putin didn't attack while Trump was still in power.  Even if he thought Trump would win the election, Putin could have launched the war in December of 2020.  

Anyhow, what else did I learn across the many meetings, the two days of conferences, and much arguing with my colleagues over a Baltic Sea of beer?

First, I have always been on the hill that 2% is a shitty metric.  That the NATO aspiration for each member to spend at least 2% of their GDP is a bad way think about things.  That input measures suck, that Greece is over 2% but a shitty ally.  Well, norms/expectations are mutually constituted--it is not up to me, nor is it up to any Canadian leader to say--this norm is lousy, let's move on.  It, alas, shapes the debates.  I don't think it would be so damaging if it were not for ...

Second, follow up on your promises in a timely way.  Canada has burnt most of its political capital in the region not because of 2% but something that travels with it--not making timely decisions and not delivering in an expeditious manner.  When Trudeau was here over the winter of 2022 and promised to do more. At the last NATO summit, Canad agreed (reluctantly is my guess) to increase the size of the effort in all of the nearby countries including Latvia.  For Canada, that means leading not a Battle Group but a Brigade, which means increasing the Canadian force from 500 and then 800 to 1800.  That is going to stress the hell out of a military that is short of personnel.  It also requires $$$ to build infrastructure so those soldiers can have a place to live.  So, everyone in Latvia is holding their breath, hoping for a decision to be announced in the leadup to the next NATO summit in July.  Minister of National Defence Anita Anand will be at the next NATO Defence Ministerial meeting next week, and she will be asked to make serious commitments.  New money.  NEW MONEY.  I am guessing that this new money will appear in the Defence Policy Update that will be released just before the summit (no accident).  I just hope that the size of this does not disappoint.  I still don't think 2% should be the target, but I do think spending should reflect the commitments that are made, which means it needs to go up.

Third, yeah, I am an advocate.  This kind of trip, where the govt helps us meet people (but does not foot much of the bill--my grants do), raises questions about my independence and those of my colleagues.  Are we just a tool of CAF info ops aimed at the public?  Not really, but the public affairs people do hope that by sharing heaps of info and getting us to talk to the folks here, that we will say nice things about the mission.  They may not get that since some of my colleagues are more skeptical.  I am probably biased in this as I lived the NATO life when I was in the Joint Staff, and I did co-write a book about the organization, so I want it to succeed.  And I do think the Russian government is a force for evil and needs to be deterred.  Defense?  I am not so sure about, but deterred, absolutely.  And NATO is doing that quite well.  So, I am in favor of investing more here.  I don't think it is that problematic for Canada to make this the single major military commitment, although my pals were suggesting that as soon as the war in Ukraine ends, that will become the shiny mission that Canadian leaders will want to join.  Committing to the long run in Latvia does reduce discretion since the CAF can't be at 1800 here and then do much elsewhere.  Does Canada send troops Cold War-style to live here for three years and bring their family along?  Maybe the military would be happy to have only one commitment--that it could say no to peacekeeping ops due to the stress of this single effort?

Fourth, we did go to a Strategic Comms conference, and the group of us mostly, I think, view Canada as being lousy at Strategic Communications.  What is the story here?  What is a good story to tell the Canadian people?  It should not be a story that is the military's to sell.  It should be the government's, and it should be other agencies.  I am not a Strat Comm person or an expert in marketing.  I get that they have a hard time getting media coverage since good news does not make much news, and journalism is facing $ problems, so if they spend on expensive trips, they will go to Ukraine, not Latvia.  But it should not be that hard to create videos, graphics, and such and flood Canadian social media to raise awareness.  Arranging this trip may help, but they can't run lots of these kinds of trips because:

  • most Canadian academics don't have heaps of grant dollars or time to spend on a trip like this
  • so sending the same ones back again and again means having the same voices again and again
  • these trips are a huge time suck for those whose shared their expertise with us.  They were terrific, but they can't do this all the time.
  • they could, you know, pay for these trips, but then we would be seen as tools of the military-industrial-academic complex.  Oh wait, there are folks already making those claims. 

 I think the best strategic communications is when you have a good story to tell, which means doing the right stuff, the good stuff.  The contribution/leadership of this multinational force is big, but it needs to be supported.  They need $ and procurement projects that move along.  Trudeau needs to back his promises up with actions.  Sometimes he does that, and sometimes he doesn't.  Doing more here may not win him votes, but it won't lose him votes either.  Indeed, committing to big bucks puts the Conservatives in a pickle--do they want to cut defence spending to get to a balanced budget?

I will probably write more about this as I remember stuff and as we see decisions and announcements roll out.  So, this is what I have thus far.  Let me know what you think.

Third Day of Roundtables: MoDs, Pols, Dips, Oh My

 Enjoying the fresh cc cookies in the United lounge while I await my third leg to get back home, so tis time to catch up on my trip blogging.  This post focuses on yesterday (yesterday was Friday, right? where we meet with folks at Latvia's Ministry of Defence, at their parliament, and at the Canadian embassy, the next post will focus on the bigger lessons/implications.

The MoD briefing started with Ronald Reagan's evil empire speech, so that set the context.  The sense here is that war with Russia may be delayed by Ukraine's stand, but is likely down the road.  The Latvians monitor the Russian messaging at home, and it does not reassure at all. Latvia has shipped off quite a bit of what it had to the Ukrainians because they need for Russia to lose, to learn the lesson (which they doubt the Russians will learn).  Justin Massie asked again whether it might make more sense for Canada just to send its military equipment to Ukraine, and the Latvians said--why not both essentially.  That we need to build up Latvia for that day when the Russians invade and we need to delay that day by arming Ukraine.  Latvia is aiming to spend 3% of its GDP on defense, and I refrained from snarking about how having a tiny GDP makes that easy.  They are quite serious.  The Latvians also made good arguments for why Canada operating in Latvia is good for CAF readiness. 

I asked about how their MoD relates to the military as that is the next Steve and Phil and Ora project, and they said they have a British model (which sounds better than the Canadian model, but Phil will have to find that out fo rus). 

A recurring theme--waiting to hear whether Justin Trudeau will back up the promises made about spending more on the Latvian mission as it moves from battlegroup to brigade (from 1k to 3k).  Finns got mentioned for the first time as a potential new contributor to the multinational group Canada is herding.

The second meeting after a quick fast food lunch (I chose poorly) was at the Parliament where we spoke with an MP and a leader of a think tank (I think).  Lots of fun discussions of Latvian domestic politics--five parties, in govt and in opposition, mostly on the same page.  The Canadians were envious of the MP focus on good governance, not just point scoring.  JC asked about their parliamentary oversight--he is a pal. They are definitely closer to European/German standards--the MPs have security clearances, defense committee is chaired by former defense official, engaged in serious debate.  In other words, tis not Canada.

The big split on defense/foreign policy in the parliament is whether parties lean to US/NATO or lean towards EU.  Any change in government (coalition wrangling going on now) is not going to make much of a difference for the stuff we have been discussing.  

We had heard of Germans and Lithuanians fighting in the media--the Latvians said that won't happen here even if JT falls short.  Was fun to hear a reference to the BattleRhythm episode we recorded earlier in the week

We had an interesting conversation about the gender debate regarding their conscription.  Their draft starts soon, men can be drafted, women can volunteer.  They discussed challenges for absorbing heaps of people.  

We asked about their Russian population, and another recurring theme--the Russian speakers aren't all alike--diverse by age, by what they speak, by social groups.  The very interesting thing was the results of the recent election caused the usually leading party for the Russian-speaking minority to fall short of 5%, which means they don't get any seats.  And they were the one Russian-speaking party that was critical of Russian aggression, so oh my.

The conversation at the Canadian embassy was much different, as we asked tough questions and pushed our own views, rather than just being in receive mode.  Why are we here?  What is our interest?  Just NATO?  Doing this mission does reverse the view that Canada doesn't care about NATO (holy short memory, Batman, they forgot about Kandahar so quickly.  Well, Robin, we did leave combat years before everyone else so....). 

They folks at the embassy did a good job of articulating to us what Canada gets out of the mission, including a better understanding of fighting disinfo since the Latvians get heaps.  The irony, of course, is that Latvia does strategic comms well and Canada .... doesn't.  I mean, we, the group as a conduit for Canadian info ops (more in the next post)?  Not the best way to do strategic comms even if we academics are the most trusted (hey, our suveys say that, really!).

The meeting egan to end as we discussed the best metaphors and analogies.  Did Trudeau propose and ihs now delaying the wedding?  Or are we married, but not really keeping our vows?

Friday, June 9, 2023

Strategic Communications Conference, Riga 2023: Day 2

Yesterday was the second and final day of the Strat Com conference.  I discussed day 1 here.  The first panel was on Deterrence of the Next Decade.  I thought this would be more about deterring electoral inference and other comms stuff, but it turned into a nuclear deterrence panel.  Interesting, scary, but not what I expected.  Francesca Giovanni talked about the renaissance of nuclear weapons--that they are more relevant these days.  Woot?  Her talk basically reinforced my concerns about the autocratic advantage in the stability-instability paradox--that when countries are deterred by mutual destruction at the nuclear level, they may not be so deterred at lower levels, and that autocratic countries can play the risky game of escalation at lower levels better due to narrower audiences.  Fun!  She argued that lots of the guardrails from the Cold War aren't here--like the officials of the PRC don't pick up the phone during a crisis.

She also made an important point--that deterrence works when the other side is assured that your side will not attack if they don't do the thing you are seeking to deter.  My take on this is the big brother syndrome--big brothers are bad at deterrence because they may pound you whether you submit or not.  Not that my brother did that.  The relevance here is that if one threatens, say, regime change or sending someone to the Hague for war crimes even if they give in, then the incentive to give is low....  So, deterring Putin only works if we don't threaten him if he goes along with the status quo.  

The next panel was the Global Battle of the Narratives, moderated by the CDSN's own and Canada's own JC Boucher.  I believe he was the only Canadian on any of the panels.  Good thing he repped us all very well.  It was a very interesting panel where folks from a variety of places--Japan, US, Australia, and Microsoft--presented their takes on mostly China.   Key points include: we need to be better at explaining our value proposition in the world especially in the Global South (although panelists hate this term as it makes it seem more homogeneous, unitary, other, etc); that the Russia/China partnership is not going away as they need each other, some speculation about another Trump adminitration (oy), Japan's government is moving but its public is not.

 I missed the last panel, but did not miss the concluding reception, which was lovely.  Very good beer in a very nice venue.  They brought in a group of folks representing traditional Latvia.  They did some games, including one where young women would throw wreathes onto a tree--if the wreath stayed, the women would be married soon.  Not too soon given the outcomes, but once they started throwing the wreathes like frisbees, they got better results. 



Over the course of the two days, I meant a bunch of folks from across Europe but also Americans and Canadians.  The NATO Field School, a course run by Simon Fraser University (a CDSN partner), led by Alex Moens and a few key young women (Hannah and Amy) had 45 young people from North America and Europe asking good questions during the panels and then afterwards.  It was great to meet them, and our group of Canadian scholars will be meeting with them on our last day in Riga and their halfway point of their course.  They went to the NATO Defense College for two weeks, now here for two, and then Brussels for 2.  

I learned a lot and will still learn more on our last day with meetings at the Latvia Ministry of Defense (where I will be tempted to ask questions for my comparative defense agency project) and the Canadian Embassy.  This trip was definitely worth it, as I have clearer ideas both about what is going on here in Latvia and the trends in Strategic Communications.

Wednesday, June 7, 2023

Strategic Communications Conference, Riga 2023: Day 1

Our team of Canadian academics and fellow travelers are here in Riga this week because of NATO's Centre of Excellence on Strategic Communications, based here, is throwing their annual conference.  The folks from ADM Public Affairs built visits to various interesting folks before and after, but the timing is driven by this event.   So, what did I learn today besides these folks having amazing production values--the AV and all that was terrific.

One consistent theme throughout the visit thus far: "we told the West that Russia was aggressive and you didn't believe us--we were right."  This is not just "I told you so," which, well, it is, but it is also, "hey, don't get smug, we are still in danger."  So, the Latvians are definitely putting out that message strategically so that they get the help that they really believe that they will need.  

I thought a good related message made by Latvia's President, Krišãjanis Kariņš, was that WWII generation and those who remember it may be passing from the scene, but those who lived through Communism and Totalitarianism are still very much around.

Graham Brookie, I believe, made the point in the second panel that to do Strat Comm well, you have to stand for something.  This was a recurring theme as well.  He also argued the battle was not between us and them controlling the info space but us fostering a free info environment.  Talk to Elon Musk, I did not shout.

My favorite panel was the Masterclass by Ukraine, which the folks on the panel then spent much of the time discussing how Ukraine has done it well but not perfectly.  Hanna Sheslet, who is a Ukrainian PhD working in a couple of different jobs--Director of Security Programmes at the Foreign Policy Council (No idea what that is) and editor-in-chief at Ukraine Analytica--was easily the best speaker of the day (the President was pretty good, too).  She was clear, persuasive, and had great bits of data and stories.   Among the things she said:

  • Narratives come back.  You can't be satisfied with winning one battle against a specific narrative, as it will come back.  
  • We are winning but still in the middle of an info war.
  • We need to be better about our language--saying it is the Ukrainian conflict allows Russia to avoid agency/responsibility.  The passive voice (!) does the same--kids were kidnapped?  No, Russia kidnapped the kids.  She also used a Voldemort reference, so between that and the passive voice rant, she won me over.  
  • She was asked that since the democracy/autocracy thing didn't play in the Global South, why not try Russians as imperialists/colonial power (which, well, is true)?  She responded that in her focus groups with folks from the Global South, they rejected that appeal for two reasons--that Ukrainians are white so they can't be victims of imperialism and that the Russians have inherited the Soviet mantle of being anti-imperial.  Damn.

 The panel also had a relatively less coherent speaker who also hit my sweet spot by showing NYT stories about the dam bursting (see, the passive voice denies agency, don't do this, kids) covering it with their favorite flavor--false equivalence sauce (been a long time since I have developed a new sauce!).  Would you really want to be a journalist saying: hey, we gave the Jews five minutes, we need to give Hitler five?

Patrick James Christian, the third speaker on this panel, explained that there are some key ingredients to a successful strategic comms effort: reality, responsibility, right/wrong.  Reality means that you have to speak to the basic facts and not deny them.  Defeats happen, acknowledge them, don't pretty them up.  Responsibility means emphasizing how everyone is responsible for each other--this ties people together and reduces despair.  What is the right thing to do?  Give guidance to what you want folks to do and not do.  Help the people understand with meaning so they don't break.

I met a variety of folks during the various breaks including some of the NATO Field School people who will soon be sharing their experiences via the CDSN Podcast Network's new podcast--NATO Field Notes.  The 45 students plus their leaders spent two weeks in Rome at the NATO Defense College and will be heading off to Brussels after two weeks here in Riga.  They are getting some of the same briefings we did.  It was good to see them.  I also met a variety of other folks and got their impressions.

 The conference is in a neat space--a former railroad station. Overall, a very good first day of StratComm stuff.  Tomorrow, one of our crew, JC Boucher, moderates a session so we will try to make things difficult for him.

Should We Stay or Should We Go?

 One of the big questions here in Latvia (and in the rest of Eastern Europe) is whether this is going to be a series of temporary things or is it a Cold War-esque, long term deployment.  Sure, Russia's military sucks and is broken, but Putin and perhaps his successors have proven to be risk acceptant and likely to do stupid things again and again.  Indeed, I asked folks about that--are you less worried because the Russian military is not so mighty or more worried because they aggress?  The answer is the latter for these folks.  So, Canada feels a real choice--invest in the long run ... or not.  I know what Canada will do (see below), but what should it do?

The pro's of investing in the long run

  • One could post more people in Latvia as opposed to temporary deployments--they could bring their families so there is less friction, people don't get in a spin cycle of every six months.
  • The development of the forces here could advance beyond a six month cycle where the first two months are about getting one's shit together and the last month is about leaving.
  • Everyone develops better relationships--with the locals, with the other countries operating here and nearby.
  • Cost savings of not having to ship over stuff and people every six months.

The cons's

  • The Canadian Army wouldn't be able to do much elsewhere.  No Haiti missions, no peacekeeping elsewhere (as if that is likely to happen).
  • For the politicians, no new places to go so you can't make a new shiny announcement (Justin Massie's point, if I remember correctly).
  • Folks may not want to leave Canada for 3 years.

Note, either way, Canada is committing to having 1800 troops here.  So, those questions of sustainability are not so relevant for staying for short term stints or longer term.  Once that choice was made (maybe unwittingly), those challenges will have to be confronted either way.

I have to run to the Strategic Communications conference, so I will provide a clue as to what Canada will do:

Monday, June 5, 2023

Moving from Deterrence to Defence: First Day of Briefings in Latvia

 I am in Riga this week for briefings with various NATO/Canadian/Latvian players in this area's defence scene and to attend a conference on Strategic Communications run by the NATO centre focused on this stuff (and based in Riga).  I was in Riga in 2017 to check out the new NATO battlegroup led by Canada and to go to the Riga Conference.  

At that time, the Enhanced Forward Presence was a relatively new mission--four countries led small contingents of NATO troops in Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland (UK, CA, Germany, US respectively).  This force was, despite all the denials, a tripwire--that any Russian attack would kill Americans and Brits and Germans and Canadians and  many other NATO soldiers, which might then trip a serious response that could lead to things spiraling out of control.  Now, the contingents are all somewhat larger and are on their way to being brigade size--3000 per spot and four more spots (Hungary, Slovakia, Romania, and Bulgaria).  The claim/aim is now that these contingents will be more focused on defending these countries, thwarting Russian aggression rather than just deterring it. 

Today, we first met with a Latvian Major in their defense headquarters. He started off by showing a 2016 amendment to their national security law that had two key features: 1) in case of surprise attack, any/all Latvian commanders shall engage in defensive efforts without waiting for orders; 2) resistance cannot be forbidding. The former was a lesson from Crimea--that if Russia blocked the comms, the local forces would still react, rather than waiting for orders.  I had heard something a few years ago that suggested this was the case, and this was good deterrence signaling.  That an effort to establish a fait accompli wouldn't work here.  The second piece was a lesson from WWII where their leader surrendered to Stalin.  I also learned that they re-started conscription this month, but they may not need it if they get enough recruits.  

Things have gotten complicated as Canada is a Framework Nation, which means it leads a multinational unit within a Latvian brigade, while the Danes are leading a NATO Multinational Division-North, which includes the other Baltic countries.  

I asked how the Canadians in Latvia compared to the Brits in Estonia and Germans in Lithuania, and the response was quite favorable to the Canadians (although the major knew he was talking to Canadians so 🤷).

We had a great lunch at a gas station across the street from the base (the food situation at this base is pretty strange), and it was really quite tasty.  

We then met with Colonel Kirstein, who spent a lot of time chatting with us along with his command team.  Canada now has 10 partners in their battlegroup, and the problems are still focused on differing alky and leave policies as I had heard in 2017.  Force generation (which is begging countries to give troops to the multinational force, as Dave and I found out in our book on NATO) still is hard, as the move from Battlegroup to Brigade means more troops and more competition for these troops since every one needs more and a few of those in Canada's space are leading some of the missions.  One of the big differences between EFP and Afghanistan is that most of the force generation in the latter was done by top officials at NATO (SACEUR, Deputy SACEUR, Obama), and for the battlegroup in Latvia, Canada is doing the begging.

So, I asked, how can Canada do this with far less political capital/coercive capability than the US?  The answer in part was working with Canada is precisely attractive because of the absence of strings.  Also, since Canada is not Germany, it also does not present any EU strings or complications.  My own view of Canada's position here is accidental--by being chosen last to lead one of the first four, Canada got the less useful allies.  Tiny contingents from Montenegro and Albania and North Macedonia.  But this has become sold as a plus (and probably is plus-ish)--that Canada is good at managing the complexities of many countries operating in one spot.  I did ask about caveats, and they certainly exist, and the Colonel is tracking them.  Some countries need permission from home, for instance, if they want to train outside of the Latvia base.  

One of the challenges here is that there was resistance to permanent NATO basing in the Baltics as this would violate the NATO-Russia Founding Act.  What's that?  In my view a dead, dead, dead piece of paper.  I have been asking about this for years, and I did hear previously that the Germans recognizing its dead parrot-like state because they want to keep some institutions that they can build on some day.  Today, it was articulated that NATO does not be the one killing the agreement.  I retorted that NATO is the coroner, not the killer, declaring that the time of death was 2014, and the cause of its death was Russian aggression in Crimea.  Anyhow, the way it works with Canada is that it has a three year agreement with Latvia, and it got renewed last year.  This prevents long term planning, because you can't build a schedule out several years.  Which means, for instance, while there might be some major advantages to making the Canadian mission here like ye olde Cold Warre deployments--have troops come over for three years with their families, build schools for the kids, and just settle in for the long haul--it ain't gonna happen.

My colleagues asked a variety of sharp questions about tradeoffs between sending arms carried by Canadians to Latvia versus sending arms to Ukraine to be wielded by the folks there, whether the government understood what it committed to when it agreed to move to a brigade-sized force in Latvia, can Canada do strategic communications (no), and, of course, where we should drink beer.

We have a day at the battlegroup tomorrow, two days of Strategic Communications conference, and then a day meeting folks at the Latvian MoD (time to ask questions about my next project) and the Canadian embassy before hanging out with the cool kids at the NATO Field School, which is run by a CDSN Co-Director--Alex Moens.  

I have already learned a lot, and will continue to drink from the fire hose tomorrow.  This stuff touches on past research (my IR of ethnic conflict stuff way back when, my NATO stuff) and my current stuff (who is minding the store?).  And, no, I have not yet started a crisis among allies.  But I have several days left.

Friday, June 2, 2023

Looking for Some Defence Tech? My Day at CANSEC

Eric and I next to
the one staffed
aircraft on display

 Yesterday, I spent much of the day at CANSEC, which is the tradeshow for the Canadian defence industry.  I was able to go because one of the former participants in the CDSN Summer Institute, Eric Dion, had an invite and could have me as his +1.  I was most grateful because of two basic elements of my personality: I am deeply curious and I have a serious case of FOMO (fear of missing out).  And, yes, some good networking opportunities as well--mostly the government types, less the industry types, including one senior officer who will be on the podcast soon.

I missed the protests the day before--perhaps because the Minister of National Defence was there.  Some may wonder if going to this show makes me a tainted part of the military-industrial-academic complex.  I, of course, don't think so, since I am critical of the defence contractors most of the time, and their swag wasn't that great.  If they had given me a ride in an F-35, maybe I'd be a bigger fan?  Anyhow, as always, I think engagement pays off.  I learned a lot from walking the floor and chatting with people.  Such as:

  • tear gas antidote!
    What a vast array of firms/products there are.  I was going there expecting mostly guns, armored vehicles, planes, artillery, etc.  But armies do run on their stomachs/logistics, so there were folks pushing their cables, their popup tents/buildings, clothing (lots of arctic gear), red team hackers, drones, medical stuff (including antidotes to tear gas--I was tempted to ask if they sold to protest groups), and much more.  There were artillery shells, but not much arty, no tanks.  But all of the major shipbuilders of Canada and many from Europe were there. The biggest displays/terrain were Lockheed, General Dynamics, and a few of random initial folks.
    Small pic, big display
    They even had
    firms pushing their
    boxes and racks!


  • There's more than one way for a firm to get attention. These folks wearing Pac-man suits also had a pac-man game.  They obviously knew that their market is folks in their mid-50's, I guess.





  • The place is kind of like Disneyland or Universal Studios--if you want to do the coolest things, go their first thing.  I didn't, so I didn't do any of the flight simulators.  

  • Carleton STEM undergrad are quite employable, as I met several on the convention floor, part of various firms hawking their wares.
  • Culture change has a long way to go in this sector as a friend from CPCC (the culture change agency) that the only non-dude tactical dummy in the place was a tactical dog dummy.  I did spot one firm with a pregnant mannequin for a display of base layers, but apparently women in infantry is not something these folks are really building for. 
  • If you grab some swag from a firm, you end up talking for a few minutes.  The swag was not that great, so I was not so motivated.  My partner in crime was more interested in each spot, so he did a lot of chatting.  I didn't have that many questions for most of the firms, but I did learn that ...
    The GD LAV display
  • Canada sent its best light armored vehicles, not its castoffs, to Ukraine, as the General Dynamcs display of their ambulance variant (nice play to Canadians who prefer not to think about the  shooting part of, um, war) had friendly folks tell us about their systems.  The outside display area was otherwise not that exciting.




  • Speaking of Ukraine, Zelensky was used to sell some pop up buildings:
  • Drones are hip--heaps of drone displays 



  •  My fave display was explained by an aforementioned Carleton undergrad STEM student.  It featured an anti-drone missile system, where the missiles drop rubber spaghetti when they get close to the drone, aiming to foul up the drone's propellers (the red thing in the banner behind the system).  The missiles can be 3D printed!  One key in the anti-aircraft fight is whether one's system's ammunition is cheaper and easier to make than the incoming threat. 

  • We are coming close to the technicals with this GMC Colorado SUV converted to Mad Max vehicle




  • This comms company caused me the greatest temptation to snark about my work on multilateral military ops--that these systems may be filled with curses as countries learn what their allies can't/won'
    t do.

  • That defence contractors hate the offset game but play it anyway.  I talked with one defence contractor at a reception two days before about how much it adds costs to appeal to Canadian politicians by promising jobs in Canada.  They apparently need tech to help figure this stuff out -->

  • To play the game, they do stuff like this:








 I raised with one defence contractor that those jobs in Canada (which might not be the best investment for jobs) depend on selling weapons to unsavory places like Saudi Arabia, and they were, like, yep.

  •  That baby F-35s like to cuddle:










  • The defence community is small.  Great to bump into some twitter pals.