For some reason, I have never quite grasped the concept that Russia is trying to ‘undermine our democracy’. Democracy is a system in which, theoretically speaking, governments are elected, and decisions made, by popular consent. Attempting to influence the public, or the government, to get them to support this policy or that, doesn’t constitute ‘undermining’ because at the end of the day it is still the people who decide through their elected representatives. Within a democratic system, it is normal for interests groups of all types to lobby parliamentarians and bureaucrats and attempt to sway public opinion. Those groups include foreign diplomats: indeed, one might say that influencing other governments’ policies is pretty much the purpose of diplomacy. There’s nothing odd about it.
Despite this, there appears to be widespread agreement that what once might simply have been called ‘public diplomacy’ actually constitutes ‘interference’ in our internal politics and as such a serious threat to national security. At least that is what one feels obliged to conclude based on recent statements and actions by the Canadian government.
A week or so ago Canada announced that it was expelling four Russian diplomats as part of the general Western purge of Russians in the wake of the Skripal affair. I suspected something was amiss the moment that I read Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland’s explanation of why those four particular Russians had been chosen. Freeland said that they had been identified as ‘intelligence officers or individuals who have used their diplomatic status to undermine Canada’s security or interfere in our democracy.’ The first part of this statement was pretty standard – throughout the Western world, governments justified the expulsions by saying that they were targeting Russian spies. Indeed British Prime Minister Theresa May called on allies to take the opportunity to smash Russian spy networks. What struck me was the final bit of Freeland’s statement – that about ‘undermining our democracy’ – and it immediately made me think that something else was going on here.
Confirmation that this was not chiefly about espionage came a few days later when the Globe and Mail published an article saying that:
Three of the four Russian intelligence operatives expelled from Canada on Monday were conducting cyberactivities out of the Montreal consulate aimed at discrediting the World Anti-Doping Agency [WADA] and spreading disinformation about Canada and its closest allies, a source has told The Globe and Mail.
WADA has made some very serious accusations against Russia. It’s natural that Russian diplomats should be responding. Their job includes defending their country’s reputation. In this instance, that means trying to discredit (whether rightly or wrongly) what WADA is trying to say. If these diplomats were using social media to try to influence public opinion, they were only doing their job. Moreover, WADA isn’t Canada. Attempting to discredit it in no ways constitutes ‘undermining Canadian security and democracy’ as claimed by Ms Freeland. Rather, what the diplomats are guilty of is telling the Canadian public things which the Canadian government doesn’t want its citizens to hear.
Two days ago, Prime Minister Trudeau was asked how the expelled Russians threatened national security. He responded:
I think we can all remember the efforts by Russian propagandists to discredit our Minister of Foreign Affairs, through social media and sharing stories about her.
This provides a clue as to the reason for the expulsion of the fourth Russian diplomat, identified in today’s National Post as Embassy Press Secretary Kirill Kalinin. Back in February this year, Kalinin was described as ‘maybe one of the more influential media-relations operators in Canada’ due to the impact he was having as the man responsible for the Twitter account of the Russian Embassy in Ottawa. In particular, Kalinin managed to annoy the Canadian government by retweeting a link to a story which had already broken about Freeland’s grandfather and his alleged collaboration with the Nazis during World War Two. It’s worth noting that in this case, he didn’t invent the story, which was already circulating widely on the internet; he merely passed on the link. This was enough to have Freeland accuse the Russian Embassy of spreading ‘disinformation’ (which was itself disinformation given that the story about her grandfather is true).
Kalinin then caused an additional scandal by noting on Twitter that Canada hosts a couple of monuments to Ukrainians who served alongside the Germans in World War Two, including the Galicia SS Division. Reporter David Pugliese notes in today’s National Post that these Tweets not only led to a number of large stories in national newspapers on the subject, but also ‘sparked a flurry of concerned emails among Canadian government officials who tried to figure out how to respond publicly, according to documents obtained by Postmedia under the Access to Information law.’ Pugliese writes:
The officials, who indicated they were ‘under pressure’ from the senior levels of government to come up with something, wrote a response that the Canadian government remained concerned about what it called inappropriate Russian efforts to ‘spread disinformation.’ The response also included highlighting Russia’s attempts to undermine democracy.
But that sentence sparked debate about whether a tweeted photo of monuments to Ukrainian SS members fell into such a category. ‘Framing them as “destabilizing western democracies” seems a step too far,’ one public servant noted in an email.
I’m with the public servant on this one. The story about the monuments is true. I can’t see how providing the Canadian public with true information of which they might be unaware constitutes either spreading ‘disinformation’ or ‘undermining democracy’. Indeed, I would argue that trying to deprive the Canadian public of such information more accurately fits those categories.
This story suggests that the expulsion of the four Russians had nothing, as originally claimed, to do with intelligence gathering or threats to Canadian national security, and everything to do with the four diplomats’ activities on social media. Of course, that doesn’t prove that those expelled weren’t also doing something nefarious, but the publicly available evidence doesn’t suggest that that was the reason they were selected. What Ms Freeland should have said was that the four were chosen ‘because they’ve been saying stuff on social media which we’d rather that the Canadian public didn’t know about.’ That wouldn’t sound as good as citing threats to national security and democracy, but it would at least be the truth.