Joe Biden’s administration had two different and seemingly disparate international crises on its hands Friday when Jake Sullivan, the president’s national security adviser, strode to the podium in the White House briefing room.
Sullivan’s message was chilling: If Russian President Vladimir Putin plans to invade Ukraine, he said, it could happen before the end of the Winter Olympic Games in Beijing, which are scheduled to wrap up this coming Sunday.
At the same time, the White House had grown worried enough about the COVID-19 protests blocking vital commercial trade corridors at the Canada-U.S. border that it urged Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to take a harder line.
Experts in both countries are wondering if the two situations have more in common than an initial glance might suggest.
Bessma Momani, a political-science professor at the University of Waterloo and a senior fellow at the Centre for International Governance Innovation, said she sees earmarks of Russia’s foreign interference techniques in the social-media maelstrom surrounding the protests in Canada.
“The Russian strategy has always been about divide, right? Sow dissent from within,” Momani said in an interview Monday.
The goal, she said, is to feed and foster the narrative – already well on its way in the U.S., but less so in Canada – that western-style democracies are prone to instability, insecurity and social upheaval.
“They picked up on this idea of culture wars and identity politics being yet another demonstration that democracy doesn’t work. And so it really is part of their strategy.”
Online news startup Grid reported last week that a single, stolen account was responsible for administering four of the most prominent Facebook groups at the centre of organizing and promoting the protests, which have entered their third week.
And NBC News has reported that the protests, originally branded as a “trucker convoy” comprising drivers angry at being forced to get vaccinated against COVID-19, were being promoted by fake accounts connected to so-called “content mills” in Bangladesh, Romania, Vietnam and elsewhere.
The protests have also raised staggering sums of money – nearly US$20 million at last count, much of it from the U.S., in two separate crowdfunding campaigns online. The website GoFundMe shut down the original campaign near the US$7.8 million mark, while an Ontario judge has frozen roughly US$10 million in donations raised in a subsequent campaign on the Christian fundraising site GiveSendGo.
On Monday, the federal government in Ottawa invoked the Emergencies Act for the first time in its history, giving banks the power to suspend or freeze accounts without a court order, and force crowdfunding platforms and cryptocurrencies to follow anti-money laundering and terrorist financing laws.
Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland said companies with trucks involved in the illegal blockades face having their corporate bank accounts frozen, and their insurance suspended.
Momani said she suspects Canada’s global reputation as a stable liberal democracy in proximity to the U.S. has made it a tempting target for Russian hackers. She added the ensuing pandemonium has also provided Putin with a welcome distraction as he continues to amass troops, equipment and weapons near the Ukrainian border.
“If they were not patient zero behind this, they certainly helped add oxygen because the timing was appropriate for them,” she said.
“It’s going to be hard to pinpoint it, to completely say it’s all Russian intervention, but I have absolutely no doubt that they have their hand in this in some way.”
Neither Sullivan nor Pentagon spokesman John Kirby have disclosed any details of the intelligence that prompted the U.S. to suddenly warn of an accelerated timeline. Before Friday, conventional wisdom held that Putin would wait until after the Olympics to avoid upstaging China, an important ally.
Kirby told a Pentagon briefing Monday that Russia’s military might along the border with Ukraine has only grown over the weekend, fuelling fears that an invasion could come any day.
And he said the U.S. is keeping a close eye out for any Russian cyberactivity that could be aimed at creating a phoney excuse to invade.
“It’s one of the reasons why we’ve tried to be open over the last week and a half, two weeks about the potential for these kinds of non-kinetic tactics and procedures used by the Russians,” Kirby said.
Such tactics could “sow the seeds for potential armed conflict, (including) creating some sort of pretext that the Ukrainians would react to that then (Russia) could claim was a threat to their national security.”
John Weaver, a professor of intelligence analysis at the York College of Pennsylvania, said it’s difficult to determine with any precision if Russia has been involved in sparking the social unrest on display in Canada.
But the fact that Canada is a prominent U.S. ally and trading partner, a G7 nation, a NATO member and part of the Five Eyes intelligence-sharing network would make it a perfectly viable target, Weaver said.
“I believe it’s highly probable that they have some skin in this fight, but the degree to which that they do, I just don’t know,” he said.
“I wouldn’t put it beyond the realm of the possible that there’s an intention to try to incite things to draw people’s attention away from things going on in eastern Europe.”
Not everyone is as convinced.
The protests are less the product of foreign interference than of a potent combination of social media’s raw power and the spread of right-wing populism around the world, said Ethan Porter, a public affairs professor who leads the Misinformation/Disinformation Lab at George Washington University’s Institute for Data, Democracy and Politics.
“Just as a matter of precedent, it would be extraordinary for the Russians to have played a meaningful role in actually pulling this off,” said Porter. Their “amateurish” interference in the 2016 U.S. election ultimately had limited impact, he added.
“t’d be really surprising and stunning if there was sort of a meaningful role for the Russians or other outside actors in this.”
That said, they could nonetheless still provide a useful distraction for a “chaos agent” like Putin, he added.
“He can’t win militarily or economically, so he can win by sort of playing the Joker in the global world order, doing whatever he can to destabilize his opponents, or those he considers his adversaries,” Porter said.
“The way in which those interventions cause all of us to distrust and sometimes dismiss our fellow citizens – I think that’s actually been the most successful part of this campaign, from Putin’s perspective. It doesn’t have to work itself, but it can cause everyone to sort of wonder, ‘Hmm, what’s going on here.”’
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