Tag Archives: Lloyd Axworthy

Looking in the wrong direction

This blog returns regularly to theme of disinformation, drawing attention to the fact that the most prevalent sources of disinformation in any country are domestic, not the product of ‘foreign meddling’. For instance, whatever ‘fake news’ Russian bots may have placed on the internet prior to the 2016 American presidential election pails into insignificance with the daily well-publicized deluge of nonsense which came out of the mouth of candidate Donald Trump. Brexit didn’t happen because of ‘Russian interference’, but (among other things) because of the deceitful claims of pro-leave British politicians, such as the notorious claim that the UK would be able to spend 350 million pounds more a week on the National Health Service if it left the European Union. And so on. When you’re looking for disinformation, it makes much more sense to look close to home than somewhere in far off lands.

Despite this, numerous commentators believe that we can learn a lot from one country’s efforts to combat foreign disinformation – Ukraine. A few days ago I mentioned former Canadian foreign minister Lloyd Axworthy. This is what he has to say on the matter:

There’s some lessons to learn for Canadians. I think Ukraine’s on the front line, and there’s a wake-up call that anybody’s election, including ours in six months, could be altered, disrupted or problems could be created in terms of disinformation if you’re not very watchful about it.

Former US ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul shares Axworthy’s point of view, saying the following on Twitter:

Just attended a fascinating discussion on Russian disinformation efforts in Ukraine. We Americans could learn a lot from our Ukrainian colleagues.

Various Ukrainians are keen to support this perspective. ‘While unique, Ukraine’s experience holds broader lessons for how to tackle these emerging phenomena [i.e. disinformation],’ writes one. ‘Britain may well face more of such challenges in the future – it should learn the lessons from Ukraine if it wants to deal with them effectively,’ says another.

Ukraine is currently in the middle of a presidential election campaign. So let’s take a look at how the struggle to protect the Ukrainian democratic process from disinformation is going. An article in today’s Kyiv Post has a lot to say on the matter. It tells us:

Amid increasingly fierce competition, the big guns are coming out: negative campaign ads, so-called ‘black PR,’ and online disinformation. … ‘I think there’s a lot of playing hard and fast with the rules of the information space,’ says Nina Jankowicz, a Global Fellow at the Kennan Institute and an expert on disinformation. … ads and social media posts intended to mislead and scare voters have come to play a central role in the presidential race.

Apparently, therefore, Ukraine isn’t doing as well as McFaul, Axworthy, and co. would have us believe. So, let’s take a look at what this ‘black PR’ and disinformation consists of.  The Kyiv Post provides some examples, including:

a website with ties to the Ukrainian security agencies has accused the Zelenskiy campaign of receiving financing from the Russian security service and a Russian-backed militant who fought in Ukraine’s occupied Donetsk Oblast. … social media users have long complained of facing harassment from porokhobots — i. e. Poroshenko bots — who vocally defend the president. Some, they allege, are not just ordinary citizens expressing their honest opinions, but paid ‘trolls.’ … In late March, the 1+1 television channel broadcast a program which accused Poroshenko of corruption and implied he had killed his own brother. … On April 10, an organization associated with Poroshenko sent subscribers to its messenger app accounts a video which showed Zelenskiy being hit by a garbage truck and strongly implied he was a drug addict. … In the last week, at least two entities have published information suggesting that the Zelenskiy campaign is tied to or receiving financing from Russia.

In short, it seems that both sides in the Ukrainian election are using both the mainstream media and social media to spread false stories about their opponents, and that these are getting a wide distribution. The thing to notice, though, is that this is something that Ukrainians are doing to one another. As the Kyiv Post comments:

So far, however, domestic disinformation has largely overshadowed foreign. ‘I think most of the disinformation that we can confirm was actually distributed by the campaigns themselves and by domestic Ukrainian actors for political purposes,’ Jankowicz says.

Perhaps, then, Axworthy and McFaul are correct after all. Ukraine does have something to teach us about the role of disinformation in democratic elections, namely that it’s widespread, and that for the most part it is produced domestically, and not abroad. The Canadian Security Establishment (CSE) produced a report a few days ago highlighting the threat from ‘foreign interference’ in Canadian elections. I will comment separately on this in a few days’ time but, dare I say it, if CSE and others are really concerned about the integrity of our electoral processes, they’re looking in the wrong direction.

Abusing human rights

I came across the following while reading the Globe and Mail newspaper over breakfast this morning. Referring to former Canadian foreign minister, Lloyd Axworthy, who has been leading the Canadian mission observing the presidential election in Ukraine, the Globe informed readers that:

Russia is abusing the human rights of people living in Crimea and other Kremlin-backed parts of eastern Ukraine by using landmines, border delays and online propaganda to discourage them from voting in the Ukrainian election, the head of Canada’s election monitoring mission says.

Axworthy is particularly exercised by the fact that, ‘There were no voting stations for Ukrainian citizens in Crimea, which was annexed by Russia in 2014, and the Russian-controlled parts of the eastern Donbass region.’ The Globe continues:

‘I think the Russians really are abusing the human rights of these people,’ Mr. Axworthy said. ‘They have an important right to vote, and I think they are doing everything in their power to try to undermine it.’

He said some of the election observers in eastern Ukraine heard about voters being deliberately held up at the Russian-controlled border, while others couldn’t even get to the border.

‘We had discussions with some of the observers who were talking about how in the areas around some of the checkpoints there were land-mine fields that people see as a real risk,’ Mr. Axworthy said.

Obviously, it’s not good news if people living outside their country can’t get to vote. But whose fault is that? It’s not Russia’s responsibility to set up polling stations for the Ukrainian election. That’s the responsibility of the Ukrainian government. But back in January, the Ukrainian Central Election Commission announced that it would not open any polling stations in the Russian Federation, thereby depriving 3-4 million Ukrainians living in Russia of the right to vote. Why doesn’t Mr Axworthy mention that?? Do Ukrainians in Russia not ‘have an important right to vote’? And why is it Russia which is ‘doing everything in their power to try to undermine it’ when it is the Ukrainian government which took the decision to deprive its citizens of the ability to exercise this right?

As for delays on the borders between rebel-held Donbass and government-controlled Ukraine, these are real, but as has long been reported, the Ukrainian government is in large part to blame. Let me here cite a headline from the New York Times: ‘Ukraine Clamps Down on Travel to and from Rebel Areas’. As the report which follows says, ‘the Ukrainian authorities are now doing all they can to halt cross-border movement, deploying the full force of a Byzantine bureaucracy on the more than three million people living in rebel-held areas.’ But somehow, according to Lloyd Axworthy, the fact that people in Donbass find it hard to get into government-controlled Ukraine is Moscow’s fault! Go figure.

Land mines are another issue which is much more complicated than presented in this article. It’s natural that Mr Axworthy should be concerned about them as he was one of the architects of the 1999 Ottawa Land Mines Treaty. Tens of thousands of landmines have been laid in Donbass. Alexander Hug of the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission has complained, ‘Not only are the sides not de-mining, they are in fact laying more mines.’ Note the use of the word ‘sides’ – both the rebels and the Ukrainian army are guilty of using these weapons. Ukraine denies this, but both the OSCE and the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights accuse the Ukrainian army of laying anti-personnel mines in Donbass. The Russian Federation, incidentally, has not signed the Land Mines Treaty. Ukraine, however, has both signed and ratified it. Ukraine is thus in clear breach of its treaty obligations. Why then does Mr Axworthy paint the mine problem as a Russian one and not condemn the Ukrainian army for its actions?

Returning to my earlier point, the Russian government isn’t depriving Ukrainians of their right to vote: the Ukrainian government is. But that’s not all. The Ukrainians previously also deprived Russians of that right too. For when the Russian presidential election was held last year, the Ukrainian government posted policemen outside the Russian embassy in Kiev and the Russian consulates in Kharkov, Odessa, and Lvov to physically prevent Russians from entering the buildings in order to cast their votes. Lloyd Axworthy says that voting is an ‘important right’ and that it is an ‘abuse of human rights’ to stop people from voting. But we never heard so much as a peep from him when the authorities in Kiev did just that.

Unfortunately, Canada’s political elites, like those in many other Western countries, seem to have absolutely no discernment when it comes to matters concerning Russia and Ukraine. They lap up and regurgitate Ukrainian propaganda without the slightest bit of critical thinking; they seek to turn every story about Ukraine into an opportunity to bash Russia, even when Ukraine is actually the one responsible for the problems being discussed; and they display the most shameless double standards. Today’s article in the Globe and Mail is a case in point. It gets absolutely everything wrong. Sadly, that’s pretty much par for the course.

My subscription to the Globe expires on 12 April. I’m not renewing.