You may have missed it in the all the excitement around the world, but Canada has a general election coming up in October. As you know, elections equal Russian meddling. They’re when our Eastern friends pull out all their computer bots, fire up their trolls, and start spreading shedloads of disinformation in order to confuse and disorientate us, so that we lose our faith in democracy and then we … we … well I’m not sure what we’re meant to do then; the ultimate aim of it all rather defeats me. We vote for one party which is 100% anti-Russian rather than for another party which is 100% anti-Russian? Is that the point? Because here in Canada, that’s basically the choice on offer. Those pesky Russkies can confuse us all they like with their dezinformatziia, active measures, and maskirovka, but at the end of the day we’re still going to end up electing somebody determined to prove that he or she is more anti-Russian that the next guy or girl. Meddling, schmeddling – it’s not going to make a blind bit of difference to the result.
None of this stops the fearmongers, however, and so it was that yesterday the Canadian press was happily quoting a new report from the University of Calgary, saying that, ‘Russia could meddle in Canada’s election due to “growing interest” in Arctic’. Now, I’ve been saying for a while now that these worries are exaggerated, but for some reason ‘Professor at University of Ottawa says it’s a load of nonsense’ doesn’t generate any headlines, whereas ‘part-time lecturer in Calgary says it’s so’ is national news. Well, so be it. We all know that the press has its biases. So rather than rely on the media, I thought I’d better check out what the report in question actually has to say, and it turns out that it’s not quite what you’d imagine, at least not entirely.
The report is written by one Sergey Sukhankin who is said to be ‘a Fellow at the Jamestown Foundation’ in Washington DC, and to be currently ‘teaching at the University of Alberta and MacEwan University (Edmonton)’. According to his Linkedin page, he has a 3 month contract to teach a single course at the former, and a 9 month contract as a lecturer in the latter. He’s also listed as an ‘Associate Expert at the International Center for Policy Studies (Kyiv).’ Anyway, he starts off his report encouragingly enough by declaring that he aims ‘to give a more balanced and nuanced picture of the situation, particularly with regard to Canada’, and it is a ‘tactical error … to label as disinformation or propaganda every news item emanating from Russia. This creates the perception of a Russian disinformation machine that is much more powerful than it really is.’ Personally, I would say that it’s not a ‘tactical error’, it’s just plain wrong, but at least Sukhankin isn’t trying to overdo things. But this praiseworthy restraint doesn’t mean that he wants us to let down our guard. No, he says, ‘the peril is real’, ‘the West … must stick to confronting the Kremlin’, and (and this is the bit which got the headlines):
The Kremlin has a growing interest in dominating the Arctic, where it sees Russia as in competition with Canada. This means Canada can anticipate escalations in information warfare … Perceived as one of Russia’s chief adversaries in the Arctic region, Canada is a prime target in the information wars, with Russia potentially even meddling in the October 2019 federal election.
There’s a leap of logic here which I must admit I failed to understand. Why does ‘competition’ in the Arctic ‘mean’ that Canada ‘can anticipate escalations in information warfare’, let alone ‘meddling’ in the election? Why does the one necessarily lead to the other? I don’t see it. It would only make sense if the second part (the meddling) helped achieve some objectives in the first part (competition in the Arctic) but Sukhankin doesn’t show how they would. He just connects two unconnected things. But we’ll get back to the Arctic a little later. For now, let’s return to the report.
This essentially has two parts. The first is a fairly standard summary of the general argument that Russia is engaged in some sort of information war designed to undermine the West from within. It makes reference to the normal vocabulary of Soviet active measures and the like, as well as to the conventional list of sources, such as Peter Pomerantseve, Michael Weiss, and Edward Lucas (not the most reliable types in my opinion). In short, it doesn’t add anything new. By contrast, the second part, which specifically focuses on alleged Russian information operations against Canada, is much more interesting.
Russian disinformation about Canada, says Sukhankin, is centred on four themes:
- ‘Canada as a safe haven of russophobia and (neo)fascism.
- ‘Canada as part of the colonial forces in the Baltic Sea region’.
- ‘Canada as Washington’s useful satellite’.
- ‘Canada as a testing ground for the practical implementation of immoral Western values.’
The extent to which these could all be called ‘disinformation’ is debatable (‘Canada as Washington’s useful satellite’ doesn’t seem entirely inaccurate to me). But the key point Sukhankin makes is that these themes reflect the Russian government’s own internal, domestic political priorities – i.e. its desire to convince its own citizens that its policies are right, by means of discrediting others. In general, says Sukhankin, Russian propaganda targets ‘the following audiences, prioritized from the greatest to the smallest’.
- The Russian domestic audience
- The post-Soviet area (including the russophones in the three Baltic States)
- The Balkans and east-central Europe
- Western and southern Europe
- The U.S.
- The rest of the world
Canada, therefore, falls into the lowest priority of targets. This reflects the fact that, as Sukhankin says, ‘Russians don’t see Canada as a fully independent political actor’. To be frank, we’re not high on Russia’s information war hitlist. The Russian government doesn’t care that much about us, and it cares even less about our internal politics. Consequently, says Sukhankin, while the Russian media and social media do publish anti-Canadian stories, the point of them isn’t to ‘meddle’ in Canadian internal affairs. Rather, he says, in what to me is the most crucial statement in his report:
Russia’s anti-Canadian propaganda, which still plays a marginal part compared to other theatres, is primarily tailored for domestic Russian consumption – it is not designed for a Canadian audience. [my underlining]
Here, therefore, we run into a huge problem. We’re told to fear the genuine ‘peril’ of Russian disinformation, and Russian ‘meddling’ in Canada’s election, but we’re also told that Russia doesn’t actually care very much about Canadian internal affairs and that in any case Russian disinformation isn’t targeted at Canadians. It seems to me that you can’t have it both ways. If it’s not targeted at Canadians, then it doesn’t constitute meddling, interference, or anything else of the sort. The logical conclusion of Sukhankin’s analysis is that we should calm down a little and stop worrying so much.
That, however, would not fit with the current zeitgeist. Although his logic points him in one direction, Sukhankin apparently feels a desperate need to nonetheless throw in something about the dangers of Russian interference in Canadian internal affairs. So all of a sudden, completely out of the blue, and unconnected with anything else, in his final paragraph he suddenly throws in a quotation from the head of that most neutral of trustworthy academic sources, the head of the Ukrainian Canadian Congress Alexandra Chiczij, saying that, ‘The Kramlin’s propaganda machine will increasingly target our country with anti-Canadian fabrications in an attempt to sow discord, conflict, and to undermine our democratic institutions.’ Sukhankin then adds that this might happen ‘during the 2019 Canadian federal election.’ No evidence to support this claim – which is entirely at odds which everything which preceded it – is produced. Why would Russia suddenly become so interested in Canadian internal affairs? Sukhankin thinks he has an answer, ‘from this author’s point of view, Moscow’s next theme could be the Arctic’, he says. But since this is his last paragraph, he doesn’t have time to develop this thought. As I said, it just comes out of the blue.
It’s also rather odd. As I said earlier, it’s not at all clear why interfering in Canada’s election (exactly how, Sukhankin never makes clear) would promote Russia’s interests in the Arctic. But more than that it ignores the nature of Russian-Canadian Arctic politics. In my conversations with both Canadian and Russian officials, the Arctic is always mentioned as a zone of cooperation rather than competition. In an era when Canadian and Russian diplomats barely talk to each other, the Arctic is the one subject they both think it’s actually possible to discuss in a constructive manner. Conversations about how to improve Canada-Russia relations generally take the form of something like, ‘Let’s not aim too high. Let’s just take little steps, and focus on areas where agreement is possible, especially the Arctic’. To pick on the Arctic as the subject likely to provoke Russia (for purposes unknown) to ‘meddle’ in Canada’s oncoming election (by means and to effect unknown) seems to me to completely misread the situation.
In short, what we have here is a report which tells us that Canada doesn’t matter much to Russians, and that to date Russians have shown little or no interest in targeting Canadian public opinion, let alone interfering in Canadian politics, and yet which nonetheless concludes that we face the ‘peril’ of Moscow ‘potentially even meddling in the October 2019 federal election’. I don’t know about you, but that doesn’t make any sense to me.