Marcus Kolga - Photo: Piret Noorhani (2019)
Reede, 05 Aprill 2019 19:00
Estonian Life No. 14 2019 - Marcus Kolga
We’ve all been subjected to the barrage of Kremlin disinformation and influence campaigns that have dominated US news cycles for the past few years. Disinformation isn’t just a threat to the US, it’s much broader and targets all western and indeed NATO nations. Canada too has become a target for Russian government information warfare for many reasons.
Canada has emerged as a target thanks in part to the values based foreign policy that has been developed under by Canada’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Chrystia Freeland. Under her leadership, Canada has adopted Magnitsky human rights sanctions legislation; committed to NATO’s Operation Reassurance Enhanced Forward Presence in Latvia and operation UNIFIER in Ukraine; and has led coordinated responses to Russian aggression in Ukraine within the G7 nations. Most recently, Canada took on leadership of the G7 Rapid Response Mechanism to counter Russian government disinformation.
The four leading objectives of Russian information warfare in Canada are:
1) The subversion of Canada’s democratic processes, including elections, and the erosion of trust in our democratic institutions, media, and society;
2) The sowing of doubts about Canada’s foreign policy and political leaders, activists and NGOs who are critical of the Putin regime and who the Kremlin actively aims to discredit and intimidate into silence;
3) Turn Canadian public opinion against our sanctions regimes that target Kremlin agents and Putin connected oligarchs, including Magnitsky sanctions;
4) Undermine support for NATO with an emphasis on eroding alliance cohesion on Baltic Sea and Eastern European defence issues - this includes grinding away support for Canada’s presence in Latvia and Ukraine.
In Canada, as elsewhere, the Kremlin uses a mix of tried and true methods, honed by the KGB in the Cold War era and enhanced by modern technology. As they clamp down and repress free expression and dissent in Russia, the Kremlin hijacks and uses our own freedoms against us by spinning false narratives and creating a noxious information environment by conflating misinformation with disinformation in efforts to confuse us, and turn us against each other.
Social media is the modern battlefield for much of this information warfare, as Kremlin technologists abuse social media algorithms with bots and human trolls to amplify the regime’s toxic messaging on both the left and right of the political spectrum.
In Canada, we’ve seen Russian bots and trolls promote narratives that provoke conflicts about oil pipelines in Alberta and British Columbia, pitting environmentalists against Canadians who rely on the export of oil for the livelihoods.
On the far right, trolls stoke fears about immigration and promote anti-LGBTQ sentiments.
I recently wrote a piece for the Toronto Star, about how thousands of social media posts by Russian controlled accounts amplified anti-vaccination messages, which international health experts say, has contributed to the current international measles outbreak crisis.
Canada’s role in Latvia, as the framework partner in NATO’s operation Reassurance EFP, has been targeted by pro-Kremlin Russian language media in efforts to turn the local Russian speaking population against the Canadian deployment.
One report published by a Kremlin supported platform in Latvia, used the image of a former Canadian officer, who was convicted of rape and murder, dressed in women’s lingerie, with a headline, claiming that gay Canadian troops were taking over Latvia. Another report used an image of Canada’s defence minister, who is Sikh and wears a turban, claiming that he was leading a jihadist army of Canadian muslims to occupy Latvia.
The Kremlin also deploys a mix of individuals with business interests in Russia: former diplomats, academics and writers who are both fellow companions and perhaps naive idealists, many of whom help promote and advance Kremlin interests and views.
Businesses with connections to Russia have lobbied to keep corrupt Russian oligarchs off of Canada’s sanctions lists and frequently criticize our sanctions regime. Russian Canadian business associations and the academics and former diplomats who sit on their board, promote the view of Vladimir Putin as a misunderstood leader, who is simply reacting to the encroachment of western allies on its borders. Critics of the Kremlin are labelled as hysterical Russophobes who have fallen under the influence of Canada’s Ukrainian and Latvian diasporas.
The Russian government and the Russian orthodox church have also attempted to help develop pro-Kremlin grassroots community organizations to no avail. Statements by he Russian Canadian Congress regularly echo official Russian government positions, including those on Canada’s sanctions regime other regional foreign policy issues.
In other states, we have witnessed the Kremlin cynically weaponize history in efforts to influence foreign policy and create wedges inside communities. Ten years ago, a Finnish adjunct professor at Helsinki University, Johan Backman, actively promoted an alternate history of the Baltic States- one in which the occupation of the Baltics never happened, nor the Soviet repression or deportations of those nations. Attempts were made to discredit those who defended the truth and the history of the Baltic States - often smeared as neo-Nazis. The point of this propaganda exercise, was to delegitimize Baltic sovereignty and discredit their governments and people.
This tactic is not new, and was often used by Soviet era propagandists to discredit Baltic diaspora members who advocated for the freedom of their people. Anyone, who resisted Soviet repression, was labelled as a fascist, including the hundreds of thousands of refugees who fled the return of the Soviet occupying forces to the Baltic states in 1944.
In a paper I recently wrote for the Macdonald-Laurier Institute in Ottawa, about the threat of Russian disinformation in Canada, I warned about this Soviet era tactic being updated and deployed in Canada.
Last year, a pro-Kremlin conspiracy theory website reported that the grandfather of Canada’s foreign minister, was an editor at a Krakow newspaper during the Nazi occupation, and was therefor, according to the website, a Nazi collaborator. The report suggested the the Minister had hidden this history from Canadians and gave the impression that she should somehow be held responsible for the actions of her grandfather. The report trickled up through various other marginal websites, until it reached our national media. Eventually headlines such as “Chrystia Freeland’s granddad was indeed a Nazi collaborator – so much for Russian disinformation” emerged, intended perhaps to shed some light on this corner of history, but just as much to discredit the Minister and her policies which are critical of the Kremlin’s domestic repression and aggression in Georgia, Ukraine and beyond.
All too often, opinions, dressed up as reporting, cynically use history, Nazism and the holocaust to pit Canadian communities against each other and erode public trust in Canada’s support for Baltic and Central and Eastern European sovereignty.
Two Canadian writers who frequently conflate cherry picked historical narratives with current issues - which either intentionally or naively, raise doubts about Canada’s commitments to NATO as well as Baltic and Ukrainian sovereignty - recently attacked me for mentioning their articles with headlines such as “Chrystia Freeland’s granddad was indeed a Nazi collaborator – so much for Russian disinformation”, “Canadian government comes to the defence of Nazi SS and Nazi collaborators but why?”, “Nazis, NATO, and Canada’s Latvian Love-in”, which eventually lead to articles such as “Defence Dollars Spent In Latvia Better Spent At Home In Canada”.
In addition to trying to discredit, intimidate and silence me, they attacked Latvian ambassador to Canada, Karlis Eihenbaums and the entire 1.5 million strong Ukrainian Canadian community, in an Ottawa Citizen piece that accused us of trying to whitewash history.
On a personal note, the trolling and an organized campaign to discredit me has been ongoing for the past two months, since my Kremlin disinformation report was published. All of this peaked about two weeks ago, when I received a long hate filled, anti-semitic, rambling and threatening anonymous letter from a Moscow IP, in which I was identified as a Ukrainian, an Armenian and a Jew. It’s an great honour to be identified as any of them, alas, I am but an Estonian. I don’t think its any coincidence that the threat coincided with the smear campaign I mention above.
As we’ve seen, disinformation and attempts to disrupt our democracy and influence our policies can come from within; and those that do can create far more damage than an army of trolls and bots controlled by the Internet Research Agency in St. Petersburg.
Just as we should monitor foreign disinformation, we must also be aware when domestic actors amplify and repeat pro-Kremlin narratives, especially when their titles lend them a veneer of credibility, which naive journalists and policy makers may willingly accept.
The best antidote is a well educated public with a high degree of media and digital literacy that promotes critical thinking when consuming news and media.
In the Baltic context, we must continue to raise awareness of our history so that it cannot be weaponized as a wedge to divide us within our alliances and our communities at home. This includes supporting initiatives, like the new International Museum and Research Centre for the Victims of Communism that is being developed in and built in the former Soviet Patarei Prison complex in Tallinn by the Estonian Institute of Historical Memory and other similar institutes.
Ultimately, it is up to each of us, as responsible and active members of civil society to respond and defend against the threat of Kremlin and other foreign attempts to undermine our democracy and society.
As my friend, the great Russian activist and chessmaster, Garry Kasparov said a few weeks ago, “we cannot allow ourselves to be intimidated into silence by our enemies, nor our friends, for once we do, it won’t be long before we are unable to speak out at all.”
Shortened remarks by Marcus Kolga from the March 27, 2019, Joint Baltic American National Committee conference in The United States Capitol Building, hosted by Rep Adam Schiff and Rep John Shimkus, and the Latvian Symposium at York University, March 29, 2019.Marcus Kolga