Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says Russian diplomats in Canada are spreading propaganda about Moscow’s assault on Ukraine, but he is hesitant to expel them because he’s concerned retaliation from the Kremlin would undermine the information-gathering work performed by the Canadian embassy in Russia.
“There will always be a tit-for-tat approach from the Russians on this,” he told reporters Wednesday in Ottawa.
“I am just not sure the symbolic gesture of excluding Russian diplomats from what they are doing in Canada is worth the cost of losing our diplomats in Moscow.”
Canada’s allies in Europe have expelled more than 200 Russian diplomats after news broke of alleged war crimes in the Ukrainian town of Bucha that were discovered after Russian troops withdrew. Dozens of other diplomats and embassy workers have been expelled since Russia’s assault on Ukraine began Feb. 24. In many cases, countries have cited national security or espionage concerns.
Mr. Trudeau told reporters the federal government has been considering following up with its own expulsions, but is reluctant because it fears this would undermine the ability of the Canadian diplomatic mission to act as Ottawa’s eyes and ears in Moscow.
His comments come as Twitter said it had determined that an April 3 tweet by the Russian embassy in Canada violated the social-media platform’s policy against manipulated, deceptively altered or fabricated media.
The Prime Minister acknowledged Russia’s representatives in Canada are spreading falsehoods here about Moscow’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine.
“We know that Russian diplomats in Canada are not being helpful. They are pushing pro-Putin propaganda in a time of conflict, of war,” he said.
“We have to weigh the negative of that against the positive of having extraordinary Canadians in Moscow who are giving us feedback on what the Russian people are doing, connecting with civil society and understanding and supporting Canadians and others who happen to be in Russia at this time.”
The Ukrainian Canadian Congress, a lobby group for people of Ukrainian heritage in Canada, said it is disappointed that Mr. Trudeau is refusing to act.
“We don’t understand why the Prime Minister believes that there is any value in Canada having an embassy in Moscow forwarding us the latest Russian lies. What have our Canadian diplomats in Moscow been doing to support Ukraine or help stop the war?” Ihor Michalchyshyn, executive director of the UCC, said.
Global Affairs Canada’s online list of foreign representatives says there are 87 Russian diplomats currently accredited to Canada.
Russia has been repeatedly accused of hiding spies among its diplomats – something other countries do as well.
In 2012, former Canadian naval officer Jeffrey Delisle, later convicted of spying for Russia, told the RCMP that “Ottawa is crawling [with] GRU.” He was referring to the Russian intelligence agency Glavnoye Razvedyvatelnoye Upravlenie.
Former Canadian Security Intelligence Service director Richard Fadden, who served as national security adviser to Mr. Trudeau and then-prime minister Stephen Harper, said he would estimate that up to one-fifth, or 20 per cent, of Russia’s accredited diplomats in Canada engage in espionage.
Last August, Daniel Stenling, the head of Sweden’s domestic security agency’s counter-espionage unit, told Swedish radio that by his organization’s estimate, every third Russian diplomat who works under diplomatic cover actually works for one of Russia’s intelligence services.
The federal government refused to say how many Canadian diplomats are working in Russia, citing security considerations. A 2016 audit of the embassy by Global Affairs said there were 34 diplomats there at the time.
Mr. Trudeau said Canada cut the number of diplomats in Moscow in 2014 after Russia invaded and annexed Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula and again after the 2018 poisoning of a Russian spy and his daughter in England that Western countries blamed on the Kremlin.
The April 3 tweet by the Russian embassy in Canada that was censured by Twitter was an effort to dispute Western media reports on the atrocities in Bucha, Ukraine.
Western governments have denounced the killings in Bucha as a war crime, and Ukrainian officials say a mass grave by a church there contain between 150 and 300 bodies. Satellite images taken weeks ago in the town, situated north of the capital Kyiv, show bodies of civilians on a street.
Russia has denied targeting civilians and suggested the evidence was staged.
The offending tweet by Moscow’s mission in Canada included a video clip it said showed a corpse “moving his arm,” as if to suggest the atrocities were faked.
Speaking Wednesday in response to the censure by Twitter, the Russian embassy said it opposes censorship in social media.
A large portion of recent tweets by Moscow’s diplomatic mission in Canada are devoted to rejecting Western media coverage of Bucha. A Thursday tweet called the atrocities a “fake, staged provocation.”
Separately, Foreign Affairs Minister Mélanie Joly said Canada would summon Oleg Stepanov, Russia’s ambassador in Ottawa, to confront him with allegations of murders of civilians in Bucha as well as Irpin, where the town’s mayor last week estimated 200 to 300 people were killed before it was retaken by Ukrainian forces.
“I instructed my deputy minister to summon the Russian ambassador in Ottawa to make sure that he is presented with the images of what happened in Irpin and Bucha,” Ms. Joly told reporters at NATO headquarters in Brussels.
Also on Wednesday, the United States targeted Russian banks and elites with a new round of sanctions, including banning Americans from investing in Russia, in response to what U.S. President Joe Biden condemned as “major war crimes” by Russian forces in Ukraine.
The new sanctions hit Russia’s Sberbank, which holds one-third of Russia’s total banking assets, and Alfabank, the country’s fourth-largest financial institution, U.S. officials said. Energy transactions were exempted from the latest measures, they said.
Canada hit Sberbank and Alfabank with sanctions in February that barred Canadians from providing goods or financial services to Sberbank and Alfabank or dealing in their property.
With a report from Reuters
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