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Latvia warns Canada to expect Russian smear campaign against troops

Minister of Foreign Affairs Chrystia Freeland speaks with Latvian Foreign Affairs Minister Edgars Rinkevics in Ottawa on March 23, 2017.

Adrian Wyld/THE CANADIAN PRESS

Latvia's Foreign Minister says Canada should expect Russian-led attempts to smear or discredit an upcoming deployment of Canadian troops to his country.

Edgars Rinkevics visited Ottawa Thursday to discuss, among other topics, the security situation in the Baltic region with Canadian officials. Recently, Latvia was also the first European Union country to ratify the Canada-EU trade deal in its national parliament.

Canada will shortly dispatch 450 troops to the country as part of a NATO operation to deter Russian expansionism.

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Russia's 2014 annexation of Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula – and its ongoing support for pro-Moscow separatists in the war in eastern Ukraine – have disrupted relations between Moscow and the West and have granted the NATO military alliance a fresh mandate to contain further aggression by Russian President Vladimir Putin's government.

Mr. Rinkevics said he expects attempts by Russia or agents of the Russian government to challenge Canada's presence in Latvia through a propaganda and disinformation campaign – both by sowing mistrust among Latvians and by eroding support back home for the mission.

"I think we can't rule out such incidents, particularly at first," he said in an interview.

He cited an incident in February in which, he said, German troops leading a similar NATO deterrence deployment in Lithuania were the targets of a smear campaign. An unidentified source began spreading allegations that a group of German-speaking men had raped a 15-year-old girl in the Lithuanian town of Jonava, which is near the barracks of the German troops.

Latvia's chief envoy said that misinformation effort failed miserably, but it's an example of what foreign troops could face.

Canadian troops will begin their deployment this spring and should all be in place by June. Canada is leading the NATO operation in Latvia, but countries such as Spain, Italy, Poland, Albania and Slovenia will also be contributing soldiers.

Mr. Rinkevics said it's possible an attempt to discredit them may occur early in the deployment. He said "information warfare elements" may try to distort and misrepresent the conduct of foreign troops, particularly if a soldier gets a "little bit drunk on the weekend" and his behaviour leads to an incident.

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He said he expects Canadian troops will undertake public outreach campaigns with ordinary Latvians in order to build relationships within the host country and to combat any misinformation.

He also said the Canadian and Latvian militaries have been preparing for the possibility of Russian disinformation campaigns during the deployment.

"There are two aims for Russian propaganda: first, undermine the will of Canadian [troops] to be a strong NATO ally, questioning. 'Why are you here?' The second aim is to spread unease among the populations of countries bordering Russia to paint the West as an unwelcome and unnecessary ally. This includes "stories that NATO is advancing on Russia's borders … that the local population is being fooled by their government," he said.

Russian propaganda is nothing new for Latvia, the Foreign Minister said – his country has endured it for years.

He thanked Canada for its commitment to the NATO operation, saying the deployment is not merely symbolic. He said the thousands of NATO troops being deployed across the Baltic states in this endeavour remind Russia of Article 5 of NATO's founding treaty, which says an attack against one member shall be considered an attack on all.

Later, in a Commons committee hearing, Mr. Rinkevics pushed back against the notion advanced by others, including defenders of Russia, that Moscow must be granted domain over a "sphere of influence" in its region. Supporters of this viewpoint suggest this would lead to more geopolitical stability – even if it left Moscow free to manipulate events in neighbours such as Ukraine.

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To him, this sounds like saying "Russia has the right to stop [neighbours] from reforming themselves, from putting those values we all share, like democracy, human rights, a market economy and rule of law, into place.

Of Russia he said: "If they get what they want today, they will demand more tomorrow. And at one point, nobody can say when we are going to stop. That very much reminds me, unfortunately, of the history of the 1920s and 1930s."

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About the Author
Parliamentary reporter

Steven Chase has covered federal politics in Ottawa for The Globe since mid-2001, arriving there a few months before 9/11. He previously worked in the paper's Vancouver and Calgary bureaus. Prior to that, he reported on Alberta politics for the Calgary Herald and the Calgary Sun, and on national issues for Alberta Report. More

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