The four Russian diplomats expelled from Canada last week in retaliation for the poisoning of a former double agent on British soil may have been involved in a smear campaign last year against Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland.
Speaking at a joint press conference on Wednesday with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau linked the expulsions with the smear campaign when he was asked about the statement issued by the government last week when it decided to expel the four Russian diplomats and issue a statement that those expelled had “used their diplomatic status to undermine Canada’s security or interfere in our democracy.”
Following a question about what exactly the Russians who were expelled did to interfere in Canadian democracy, Trudeau raised the issue of a smear campaign that in, at least one case, came directly from the Russian embassy in Ottawa and attempted to tar the reputation of Freeland just one day after she was named foreign minister by saying her grandfather was a Nazi collaborator.
“We all can remember efforts by Russian propagandists to discredit our Minister of Foreign Affairs in various ways through social media and by sharing scurrilous stories about her,” Trudeau said in the press conference.
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“There are multiple ways in which Russia uses cyber, social media, propaganda to sway public opinion, to try and push a pro-Russia narrative. Certainly, our troops in Latvia are currently experiencing a wave of interference and propaganda by Russia. This is a pattern that we have seen regularly.”
He continued in French, specifically pointing to efforts by propagandists to spread disinformation about Freeland’s family.
“This is just one example of many of Russia’s efforts to influence public opinion. For me, this is completely unacceptable,” Trudeau said.
“Russia should not be getting involved in Canadian public opinion. Canada’s response of course has to do with our solidarity with our allies concerning the attack in Salisbury but this is just one attack of many of Russia’s attempts to interfere with public opinion in developed countries.”
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In January 2017, Trudeau shuffled his cabinet and appointed Freeland as the new minister of foreign affairs.
In March, the Globe and Mail reported that there were allegations on pro-Russian websites that Freeland’s maternal grandfather had edited a newspaper that often collaborated with the Nazis.
Shortly after, Vice News published a report saying it had been contacted by individuals at the Russian embassy in Ottawa one day after Freeland was sworn with the same allegations.
Freeland, who is of Ukrainian descent and is on a Russian travel blacklist for her vehement criticism of Russian President Vladimir Putin, did not deny that the newspaper her grandfather edited printed Nazi propaganda.
However, critics of the Russian propaganda, including former Conservative public safety critic Tony Clement, quickly condemned the campaign by Russia to imply guilt by association.
They also noted that opposing or challenging the Nazis was quite literally a death sentence at the time.
For months, military officials had been raising concerns about the potential for Russian disinformation to target Canadian troops and Canadian interests in the deployment to eastern Europe.
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Those warnings came on the heels of unprecedented attempts to interfere in the 2016 American presidential elections to support the campaign of current U.S. President Donald Trump.
U.S. Special Counsel Robert Mueller indicted more than a dozen Russians earlier this year on charges of interfering in the election in February and roughly two weeks later, ex-Russian spy turned British double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter were found unconscious on a bench in Salisbury, U.K.
British authorities said the pair had been poisoned using a Soviet military-grade nerve agent.
Russia had denied involvement and accused the U.K. of poisoning the pair in an attack, which also sent one British police officer to hospital and resulted in minor injuries to more than 30 bystanders.
The attack has prompted mass expulsions of Russian diplomats and agents by more than 20 states, as well as tit-for-tat expulsions of diplomats from those same countries that were announced by Russia last week.
Stoltenberg said Russia underestimated what the response to its actions would be and praised Canada for its condemnation of Russian aggression.
“Russia has underestimated NATO’s soul and unity,” Stoltenberg said.
He also noted that the unified response was an indication that the type of response that could come from members if any were to decide to trigger Article 5 of the NATO Convention in response to an incident like a massive cyber attack.
“It’s not always obvious that the response to cyber attacks will be in cyberspace,” Stoltenberg says.
Trudeau echoed that sentiment, saying such attacks would be met by similarly unified responses from NATO members and allies.