Some experts accuse the Russian embassy of intentionally sowing discord and divisiveness, part of a broader strategy to disrupt the political process in Western democracies
Russia’s government has been tweeting to Canadians about “Nazi” monuments on Canadian soil in an apparent digital extension of its conflict with Ukraine.
Some experts are accusing the Russian embassy of intentionally sowing discord and divisiveness, part of a broader strategy to disrupt the political process in Western democracies. Concerns over what’s being shared on social media come amid global worries over “fake news” writ large, and Russian interference in democratic elections.
Recent posts from the official Twitter account of Russia’s embassy to Canada included images of Ukrainian monuments at an Oakville, Ont., cemetery and an Edmonton, Alta., community hall. “There are monumets (sic) to Nazi collaborators in Canada and nobody is doing anything about it,” one tweet said.
The Oakville monument commemorates deceased fighters from the Ukrainian Galicia Division of the SS, the military arm of Germany’s Nazi government during the Second World War. The Edmonton monument is a bust of Roman Shukhevych, the leader of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army or UPA, an independence militia.
“We wanted to let our followers on Twitter know that even today in Canada you can find monuments to Nazi collaborators that committed atrocities in the Soviet Union, Poland, etc. and fought against the heroic Red Army that was allied with Canada, U.S. and Britain during the Second World War,” said the curator of the Russian embassy’s Twitter account, press secretary Kirill Kalinin, in a statement.
Soldiers battling the Soviet Union for Ukrainian independence found themselves on the same side as the Germans, who were at war against the Soviets from 1941. (The Soviets and Germans had a pact for the first two years of the war.) A Canadian government commission in 1986 found members of the Galicia Division who had immigrated to Canada were all screened for security purposes, had never had charges against them substantiated and “should not be indicted as a group.”
A detailed email from Kalinin containing the rationale for the tweets included a link to an unclassified document from the CIA — yes, the Russian embassy linked the Post to a U.S. intelligence agency — that referred to “the pitfalls and problems of enlisting disaffected ethnic minorities in an ideological struggle.”
“This is part of the complicated history of World War Two, and I think it’s not something that people should shy away from discussing. But I don’t think Russia’s goal here is to educate Canadians about the complexity of the history,” said Seva Gunitsky, a Russian-born politics professor at the University of Toronto.
“Linking Canada to Nazi sympathizers is a way to delegitimize Canadian institutions and sometimes Canadian policies,” said Gunitsky. “… It’s simply a way to try and establish some kind of equivalence. ‘You accuse us of doing bad things? You are equally guilty.’ It’s a way to retaliate rhetorically.”
Canada is training troops in Ukraine and has consistently condemned Russia’s annexation of Crimea, the source of continued armed conflict in the region.
A federal government official said Canada does not comment on tweets as a general rule and the Russians have not brought up the monuments through any formal diplomatic channels.
Russia is known for its creative use of digital “diplomacy.” Its U.K. embassy has been written about by such news outlets as The Guardian in the wake of “trolling” — such as tweeting an image of alt-right hero Pepe the Frog to Prime Minister Theresa May.
The Canadian account recently commemorated Gord Downie (a “true rock legend”) and closely followed tennis victories by Maria Sharapova. On a more serious note, it has also been used to signal President Vladimir Putin’s negative views on Canada’s recently passed Magnitsky Act, named after a Moscow lawyer who died in prison after exposing corruption.
The tweets mentioning Ukrainian monuments, posted Oct. 14 on the Ukrainian equivalent of Remembrance Day, specifically tagged Canadian Jewish organizations.
“Clearly, if there actually are monuments to Nazis in Canada we would be quite concerned about that,” said Aidan Fishman, the interim director of B’nai Brith Canada’s League for Human Rights. “The Russian government sometimes uses the word ‘Nazi,’ especially in the context of the Ukrainian conflict, with somewhat broader meaning than other groups would use it.”
Fishman characterized the tweets as a possible attempt to “take shots at the Ukrainian community in Canada.”
Lubomyr Luciuk, a professor at the Royal Military College of Canada and a member of the Ukrainian community, said he sees the Russian tweets as a campaign to provoke discord in Canadian society. “We have a foreign country whose official diplomats are interfering in the kind of life of Canada by trying to provoke ethnic divisiveness,” he said.
“It’s all based on fake news or misinformation, disinformation that’s intended to cause problems. … It’s locker-room banter, it’s sotto voce murmuring, it’s not credible and yet it obviously has currency.”
Concerns persist over the idea of interference from foreign actors, including Russia, in electoral politics.
A June report from Canada’s Communications Security Establishment warns of foreign actors’ potential influence. “The existence of foreign influence, or the perception of such, could shape the opinions of voters and reduce the trust that Canadians have in the information they are getting. Adversaries could use social media to spread lies and propaganda to a mass audience at a low cost,” it reads.
A Senate committee report the same month recommended legislative changes to address how foreign entities can spread “false or misleading information” during election campaigns.
Gunitsky said the Russian embassy’s tweets about Ukrainian monuments is a “symptom of a broader strategy” to undermine Western democracies — but “I think it’s important not to overstate how effective this is.”
Still, he said, if Freeland and others in the Canadian government continue with strong opposition to Russia, and if Canada steps up its role, for example, in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, “there will probably be more of that to come.”