The Kremlin officially denied reports that Russian diplomats were asked to leave Canada over an alleged spy affair although Russia's embassy in Ottawa has been instructed to make no public comment on the matter for now.
The controversy made ripples far abroad Friday as the Russian government tried to play down recent departures and reject any link to the recent arrest of a Canadian naval officer, Sub-Lieutenant Jeffrey Paul Delisle, for allegedly passing secrets to a "foreign entity."
Kremlin spokesman Alexei Pavlov said: "The situation is ultimately clear: The diplomats left Canada last year."
However, The Globe and Mail has learned that more than one Russian diplomat was asked to leave Canada in connection with the alleged espionage case.
At least four embassy staffers have departed Canada recently although it's not clear which exits can be tied to the controversy, which only came to light Monday.
Moscow officials, however, are using Russian media to beat back any ties to the spy accusations. The Russian radio station Echo quoted an unnamed Foreign Ministry official denouncing what they called "sensational" and "unsubstantiated" reports in Canada "first about the detention of a Canadian navy officer suspected in passing secret information to foreign representatives and now about Russian diplomats expelled from Canada."
The Russian embassy in Canada stayed mum on the matter Friday. An embassy official said Moscow had instructed its Canadian representatives to make no comment on the controversy until SLt. Delisle's court matters commence.
The naval intelligence officer was charged under Canada's Security of Information Act on Monday and is in custody in Halifax awaiting a Jan. 25 bail hearing.
More details continue to emerge about the man alleged to have fed confidential information to a foreign power.
An Ontario resident who said his girlfriend had been married to Jeffrey Delisle answered the phone at her current address. "She was shocked, no idea," he said of the spying the intelligence officer is alleged to have undertaken.
A few years after declaring bankruptcy in 1998, the accused moved into a co-op in the Halifax suburb of Lower Sackville. At the time, he was living with a spouse and three young children. The co-op is designed for families with modest incomes but even within this group the family's straitened circumstances were noticed.
"When they were living here his money situation wasn't too good," said one man who was unaware of the former resident's legal problems and shocked when it was pointed out by a reporter.
"Not him, I can't believe it, he was too … geeky," the man said. "He was straightforward. He was into his family, into his career. He really seemed to care about his kids and the military."
Once he realized the local connection to the story he'd been watching on the news, the man declined to offer a name, a reticence matched by others in the area.
Another co-op resident remembered the couple as being "quite religious" and said that the serviceman's spouse was active in the church, as well as volunteering and keeping house. He would jog for fitness and both doted on the children.
"They're both very good parents and those kids were their No. 1 concern," she said, on condition of anonymity. "Very down-to-earth people."
Residents were unclear exactly when the Delisle family moved into the modest two-story semi. But they remembered that the family was intact when they left the province in 2006, following his career to Ontario. It was only later that the marriage foundered.
When SLt. Delisle returned to Nova Scotia, in 2010, he came without his spouse.
One former Foreign Affairs staffer who now teaches at the University of Ottawa said Canadians shouldn't be surprised if the Russians are conducting espionage abroad.
"They're quite open from [Prime Minister Vladimir]Putin on down about the fact that espionage is one tool in their diplomatic arsenal," said Daniel Livermore, a former director-general with the Bureau of Security and Intelligence at Canada's Department of Foreign Affairs.