Thank you, Mr. Chairman and honourable members of the committee and Parliament.
It's a great honour to be here to speak with you about Canada's role in NATO, and specifically about information warfare and the serious threat of disinformation.
The sovereignty that we have pooled with our allies is secured by NATO's collective defence. The borders that Canadian Forces are committed to defend in Latvia are, within the context of our defence, equal to those in Canada's Arctic. For Latvian forces, a violation of Canada's Arctic would be regarded as a violation of their own borders.
To support this, Canada has taken an important lead in NATO's Baltic Operation Reassurance. As a framework country for NATO's enhanced forward presence in Latvia, Canada has contributed more than 450 of the 1,138 NATO member country troops.
A decade ago, no one would have imagined that Canadian troops would return to European soil to defend our allied states and deter conflict, nor did anyone predict the isolationist trajectory that the United States has adopted over the past year.
When looking at Canada's role in NATO, we should have no illusions about Vladimir Putin's foreign policy objectives. His goal is to establish his regime status as a superpower and to grow its influence and dominance by destabilizing western democracies and eroding confidence in our systems and institutions.
This active phase of his policy started in 2007 when the Russian embassy in Estonia helped provoke ethnic conflict by instigating and staging mass riots to protest the relocation of a Soviet war monument. The destruction in Tallinn was followed by the first ever state-initiated cyber-attacks when Estonian government, media, and banking web servers were taken offline with denial of service attacks.
The experience that the Kremlin acquired from fomenting conflicts in both Estonia and later in the republic of Georgia would be applied to a much more ambitious Ukrainian project in 2014, when unidentified armed soldiers appeared in the Crimean Peninsula.
The Kremlin mirrored tactics used by the Soviet Union during the 1940 occupation of the Baltic states when Joseph Stalin installed puppet regimes in Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania and they elected overwhelmingly to join the Soviet Union. In the similar modern Ukrainian case, a sham referendum was staged by the Kremlin in Crimea in 2014, resulting in the literally unbelievable result of 96% support for Crimea joining Russia.
The Kremlin's tactics in Ukraine became popularly known as “hybrid warfare”, combining active measures, maskirovka, or “deception” as it's known in Russian, disinformation, and kinetic warfare.
In February 2013, Russia's chief of the general staff, General Valery Gerasimov, declared that political destabilization through non-military tactics, including information warfare, psychological operations, and cyber ops would be the preferred method of winning future conflicts for Russia.
As U.S. analyst Molly McKew has written:
Chaos is the strategy the Kremlin pursues: Gerasimov specifies that the objective is to achieve an environment of permanent unrest and conflict....
This applies to not only individual states like Estonia, Ukraine, the United States, and Canada, but also super and transnational institutions like the European Union and NATO.
The Kremlin objective for NATO is to demoralize, weaken, and disrupt relations with the hope of wreaking havoc on alliance cohesion in order to control neighbouring states.
On the surface, Russian disinformation or active measures may seem like a U.S. or eastern European problem. However, the Kremlin has been manipulating Canadian media for nearly a decade, with Russia Today, or RT as it's known, Sputnik, and Canadian-based conspiracy media outlets and Kremlin proxy organizations and groups.
Recent Kremlin disinformation about Canadian Forces in Latvia demonstrates the raw crudeness that such campaigns take on. In one case, Minister Sajjan's appearance and turban were exploited by pro-Kremlin media in Latvia to stoke anti-Muslim sentiments among Russian-speaking populations. In June, another Russian-speaking outlet used a photo of convicted murderer Russell Williams to promote a negative and manufactured story about Canadian soldiers promoting homosexuality in Latvia.
Here in Canada, articles intended to sow doubt about Canada's mission in the Baltic appear in the mainstream media. A Halifax newspaper and The Hill Times have published articles mischaracterizing Baltic freedom fighters who resisted Soviet occupation as Nazism.
The Kremlin's information warfare campaign represents the greatest threat to western democracy and its institutions since the Cold War. It is designed to divide our societies, amplify and aggravate differences, and pit us against each other. It erodes confidence in our own democracy and our cohesion as a nation. Disinformation, designed to disorient and confuse us, undermines our liberal democratic systems, institutions, and processes, including our elections.
NATO has recognized this by establishing a strategic communications centre in Riga. Other nations have developed their own robust defensive “stratcom” centres. A centre for countering hybrid threats opened this week in Helsinki. The Canadian government, to my understanding, has not yet become a member. In 2015 the Canadian government did fund a NATO training program in Riga that teaches advanced counter-propaganda techniques designed to help member states assess and counter Russian propaganda in Eastern Europe.
How do agents of pro-Kremlin disinformation operate in Canada? Whom do they target and how do they do it? My own experience with Kremlin disinformation goes back almost a decade, when in 2008 pro-Kremlin trolls hijacked the identity of my late grandfather, of whose experience in the Soviet Gulag I made a documentary film for Canadian television. A bogus social media account was created with publicly available images, and anti-western and neo-Nazi content was posted to that account. In addition to that account, I received a number of threatening messages, including an email with a photo of a bomb attached to it. Although clumsy and ineffective, the intent was to discredit and ultimately silence my voice.
In 2014, in response to Canada’s sanctions against the Putin regime for its illegal annexation of Crimea, the Kremlin placed sanctions against 13 Canadian members of Parliament. One of them is a member of this committee. Another one is the current Minister of Foreign Affairs. While such action may be dismissed as political tit-for-tat, the ultimate intent is to discredit sanctioned individuals in the hope of silencing their voices.
Conspiracy media outlets are often used to publish stories that support Kremlin policies that align with the Putin regime’s narrative. One such site is Global Research. It's based in Montreal. The outlet is run by a University of Montreal professor, Mikhail Chossudovsky. They regularly publish pieces about conspiracy theories, including 9/11 truthers, the Bilderberg group, the CIA weather modification plans, and U.S.-NATO conspiracies to dominate the world. Global Research and Professor Chossudovsky are part of a broader global network called the 4th Media, which includes various Kremlin state-funded outlets, including Russia Today, as well as Syrian state media agency SANA, and others.
In January of this year, just days after Chrystia Freeland was appointed Minister of Foreign Affairs, John Helmer, a frequent Global Research contributor, posted an article entitled “Victim or Aggressor—Chrystia Freeland's Family Record for Nazi War Profiteering, and Murder of the Cracow Jews”. The article featured information about Minister Freeland’s grandfather’s activities in Nazi-occupied Poland, which were uncovered by Helmer’s Polish collaborator, Stanislas Balcerac, who, not surprisingly, also writes for another pro-Kremlin outlet, called Russia Insider. The piece, as Canadian journalist Terry Glavin aptly describes it, mis-characterizes Minister Freeland as “secretly itching to draw Canada into a showdown with Russia because of the seething hatreds she inherited from her Ukrainian grandfather”, and as just “dangerous”. The piece was later summarized by another Global Research regular, Arina Tsukanova, and was eventually picked up by the Canadian national media. The article was then promoted by Kremlin proxy organizations in Canada, including the Russian Congress of Canada, which loudly demanded Minister Freeland's resignation.
Once disinformation like this has been created, the Kremlin uses a vast set of social media and proxy tools to amplify their narrative. In the United States, we now know that the Kremlin used social media channels to supercharge partisan anger that likely altered the course of the 2016 presidential election. On Facebook alone, over 10 million people viewed Kremlin-connected ads, and Twitter recently shut down hundreds of fake accounts used by Kremlin-linked agents.
In Canada, the Kremlin’s anti-western messaging has a wide-open channel into almost every Canadian home through their state media channel, Russia Today, or RT, as it’s known. It's available on basic analog cable and is offered on almost all basic news add-on packages by cable and satellite providers, including Bell and Rogers.
In the United States, the justice department has told RT that they must register under the Foreign Agents Registration Act. This decision was in part based on a report by the U.S. intelligence community, which identified the dangerous effects of Russian state media in the U.S. Of the Kremlin’s influence on the 2016 U.S. elections, the report clearly states the following:
Russia’s state-run propaganda machine—comprised of its domestic media apparatus, outlets targeting global audiences such as RT and Sputnik, and a network of quasi-government trolls—contributed to the influence campaign by serving as a platform for Kremlin messaging to Russian and international audiences.
In Canada, the Kremlin uses a network of proxy groups and individuals to communicate its narratives to Canadians, including opinion and decision-makers. Among them are influence agents who veil themselves in academia and belong to seemingly benign organizations, such as Vladimir Putin’s Valdai club, which is a group of pro-Kremlin scholars.
Finally, in spring 2016, Natalia Veselnitskaya, the Kremlin lawyer who is at the middle of the current Russia-gate scandal in Washington, also took aim to discredit Russian pro-democracy and Magnitsky legislation activists in Canada on social media. Her messaging resulted in a request being sent by a member of the Civic Chamber of the Russian Federation, Georgy Fedorov, to the prosecutor general's office of the Russian Federation to investigate a human rights event in Toronto that I organized along with former Justice Minister Irwin Cotler and included the participation of leading Russian opposition leaders Vladimir Kara-Murza, Zhanna Nemtsova, and anti-corruption crusader, Bill Browder. All of this was, again, clearly intended to intimidate and silence Kremlin critics in Canada.
Mr. Chairman and honourable members, democracy and truth in Canada and the western world are under attack, and there is no reason or evidence suggesting any improvement in the near future. Combatting the threat of non-kinetic hybrid warfare is not as complicated as it may appear. It does require funding, and it requires dedicated resources. Disinformation and influence campaigns need to be actively monitored, and we must proactively develop and communicate narratives that challenge propaganda that is aimed at undermining our democracy and that of our allies.
Just as cyber-attacks are aimed at inflicting damage on our communities by crippling and disabling critical infrastructure, information warfare does so by crippling and disabling our society. Our democracy depends on the free exchange of ideas and well-informed public debate. As nefarious regimes try to erode our trust in them, Canada must adapt to these new challenges and adopt a leadership role among our transatlantic allies in NATO and elsewhere to combat disinformation and defend our sovereign democratic systems.
Thank you very much.