OTTAWA – Russia’s Foreign Ministry weighed into the unfolding spy scandal involving a Canadian intelligence officer on Friday by denying reports that four of its diplomats at the country’s embassy in Ottawa were expelled.
The agency said on its Twitter account that all of the diplomats left Canada due to planned rotation, not expulsion.
“Canadian media reports of Russian diplomats being expelled from Canada are surprising, as they left in 2011 on completing their secondment,” said the message.
Multiple sources within the diplomatic community say at least of two of the staffers – defence attache Lt.-Col. Dmitry Fedorchatenko and Third Secretary Konstantin Kolpakov – left the country weeks before the arrest of Sub-Lt. Jeffrey Delisle on charges of violating the Security of Information Act.
Delisle, 40, spent almost his entire career in intelligence and, at one time, worked in the military’s nerve-centre at National Defence Headquarters.
He is charged under the security law with passing secrets to a “foreign entity.” Speculation – fuelled by leaks to the media – has centred on Russia.
Fedorchatenko was honoured with a party and plaque by foreign colleagues just before he departed in November, while Kolpakov’s going-away bash was held in downtown Ottawa on Dec. 8.
“Please be advised that I am leaving the country for good in the end of December, 2011,” Kolpakov wrote last month in an email note. “On myself I would like to highlight that it was a real pleasure to work in Canada. I wish you all the best, well-being and prosperity!”
Although not discounting the allegation of spying, those who knew the pair among foreign missions were mystified at the suggestion they were expelled.
“It was well-known last fall that they were leaving. Their time was up,” said one senior European diplomat, who asked not to be named. “It’s all very bizarre.”
Doug Thomas, of Strategic Defence Solutions Inc., said parties are never held for those declared persona non-grata, and there wasn’t even a hint of suspicion in these cases.
“If an embassy official – or an attache – is PNG’ed, there’s no farewell reception, there’s nothing. They disappear within days and they go home just like that,” said Thomas, whose company deals with Russian military exports.
Both Fedorchatenko and Kolpakov’s replacements are already on the job in Ottawa.
Thomas said the new diplomats “have not gone to ground as you’d expect” if there was a behind-the-scenes diplomatic row.
The Harper government remained silent about the case on Friday, refusing to confirm reports of the expulsions. Foreign Affairs spokesman Claude Rochon did not respond to questions.
Public Safety Minister Vic Toews had little to say.
“I’m not aware of why those individuals left Canada,” said Toews, minister responsible for Canada’s intelligence service.
Defence expert Christian Leuprecht said all of the noise surrounding the case has the potential to destabilize Russia’s relationship with Canada, especially if Moscow believes leaks to the media are politically motivated.
He said the Harper government needs to tread a very fine line and take care not to alienate Russia to a great extent, despite the seriousness of the alleged spy case.
“We need to be careful for the sake of Canadian relations and Canada’s status in the world to not needlessly discredit the Russians, if there was little – or no Russian involvement,” said Leuprecht, an associate professor at the Royal Military College and Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont.
Whether it likes it or not, the West needs Russia to help influence Iran away from its burgeoning nuclear program and to help keep North Korea’s new, untested regime in check, he said.
Leuprecht said Ottawa would be better served by playing down Russia’s alleged involvement. “I don’t think it’s in the Canadian government’s interest to stir up trouble here.”
If the allegations against Delisle are true, the intelligence community would quickly assess what went wrong, said Geoffrey O’Brian, a former senior lawyer at the Canadian Security Intelligence Service.
“Why was he a weak link? How long was he a weak leak?” O’Brian said.
But officials would also determine who knew about the suspect’s access to secret material and whether there was an approval mechanism, as well as an auditing and monitoring process serving as a check on breaches, he added.
“It is important, it seems to me, to have a good internal security system to prevent exactly this.”
The Delisle matter returns to court next week.
Given that Canada is a full member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, it can be safely assumed that U.S. counterintelligence agencies “are fully involved in the Delisle case, and probably have been for several months,” said Joseph Fitsanakis, co-ordinator of the security and intelligence studies program at King College in Bristol, Tenn.