By Joe Warmington
September 1, 2014
Just in case the Russians are coming, the Canadians are now here.
Don’t look now but the Cold War is back on.
In fact, tensions between Russia and NATO are heating back up like they once were in the days before the hammer and sickle fell in 1991.
With fellow NATO partner Portugal, some 130 Canadian military personnel have been handed the massive air policing responsibilty over the Baltic states of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia.
And four CF-18 Hornet fighter jets started to fly here.
It was quite a historic and emotional moment when the responsibilty for policing the Baltic skies was handed over to Canadians Monday in a formal ceremony at a remote air base not far from Russian territory.
“We are swelling with pride,” said Lt.-Col David Pletz, a CF-18 pilot who will not only fly here but command the mission. “We are motivated to do this job with skill and with professionalism.”
They were proving this already, flying in diamond formation with a British Typhoon, a Portugese F-16 and a Polish MIG 29. They were supported by a small contingent of international diplomats who took part in the ceremony, including John Morrison, Canadian ambassador to the three Baltic states.
The sonic booms may have shaken the buildings on first day of school here but local people said the sound of the fighter jets that were once from the USSR and frightening are now the sounds of protection.
With missiles on the planes and military police — armed with automatic weapons — protecting the airfield one thing was obvious.
This is not training or manoeuvres.
The Canadian fighter jets from the 425 Alouette Fighter Squadron will be patrolling Lithuania and other Baltic air space and potentially intercepting Russian military aircraft should they fly inside it.
It is expected to happen — particularly with the strong, incendiary language Russian President Vladimir Putin has been using in recent times.
The latest is that he could take Kiev in the Ukraine in just two weeks.
Having been under the former Soviet Union for a half century until it gained independence in 1993, the people of Lithuania understand what this could mean for Ukraine — and perhaps for them.
These are uneasy and dangerous times. Volatile.
It’s a game of political chicken with the highest-powered military equipment and leadership known to man. One wrong move here, improper engagement there and who knows what could happen?
Anything can happen. Ask the families on board the Malaysian jetliner that was shot down over Ukraine this summer.
This is why the fighter group here has to be absolutely at their best.
Meanwhile, Europe has not been this uneasy since the war in the Balkans and this is an era reminding of people what it felt like prior to the Second World War.
It feels like the beginning of some strange times ahead.
“You just never know what is going to happen in today’s dynamic world,” said Maj.-Gen. David Wheeler, commander of 1 Canadian Air Division and Canadian NORAD region. “When we left Germany in 1993, we didn’t think this would happen again.”
He would know since he was a CF-18 pilot himself.
Up until this week, this fighter group based at CFB Bagotville had been training in Romania.
But now they are fully engaged — armed with weaponry and missiles.
In the Cold War days, and for decades after the end of the Second World War, Canada was part of the NATO mission to protect Europe from any potential aggression coming from the former Soviet Union.
Then, with the fall of communism, came a break up over the old eastern superpower and the independence of many of its satellite states.
The Baltic states were among them. Now, 21 years from when Canada closed the CFB 4-Wing at Baden Soellingen in Germany, Canada is back in Europe with its fighter group patrolling the skies against a potential threat from Russia.
Wheeler described it a serious situation and a roller coaster.
“You can’t read any one statement from (Putin),” he said. “It seems they need to be taken in their totality.”
One thing for sure, NATO is not taking any chances.
All of it will be talked about later in the week at the much anticipated NATO Summit in Wales.
This week’s message is they are here to protect the Baltic region.
“Our planes being here reassures our NATO allies that we are fully committed and that their sovereignty is protected,” said Wheeler.
A statement was made Monday loud and clear that no matter who decides to come into this airspace, Canada will stand (fly) on guard for thee.