The Harper government has expelled staff at Russia's embassy in the wake of charges filed against a Canadian military intelligence officer for allegedly passing secrets to a foreign power, The Globe and Mail has learned.
The names of two Russian diplomats – including a defence attaché – and two technical staff at the embassy have been dropped from the Department of Foreign Affairs' official list of diplomatic, consular and foreign government representatives recognized by Ottawa.
The Canadian government has not officially confirmed news reports that Russia was the recipient of secret information that Sub-Lieutenant Jeffrey Paul Delisle now stands accused of giving to a "foreign entity."
He was charged under Canada's Security of Information Act on Monday and is now in custody in Halifax awaiting a bail hearing on Jan. 25.
The matter risks casting a chill over Canada-Russia relations as the two nations jockey for position in the race for Arctic resources. The accusation that there was a spy in the ranks of the Canadian military has the potential to damage this country's standing among defence allies.
The Russian embassy in Canada dismissed the suggestion that its diplomats or staff were expelled in reprisal for the Delisle case, saying any departures were part of a normal rotation of employees on foreign postings. They say the staffers in question returned home at the end of 2011.
"Their term of contract has expired. That's all," a Russian embassy official said. "It's a planned shift of the diplomatic staff."
The Globe and Mail has learned, however, that a number of Russian embassy staff – more than one – have left Canada in connection with the alleged spy affair.
A Russian embassy official acknowledged the following three staffers have recently left Canada, saying, however, that all departures were routine:
- Lieutenant Colonel Dmitry V. Fedorchatenko, assistant defence attaché.
- Konstantin Kolpakov, attaché.
- Mikhail Nikiforov, with the administrative and technical staff.
The embassy did not provide a clear explanation for the fourth name now gone from Canada's official list of diplomatic, consular and foreign government representatives: Tatiana Steklova, who had been described as "administrative and technical staff."
All four of these names were part of the official Foreign Affairs daily list as of Jan. 18 and were also part of a monthly January, 2012, list the department recently published.
The four names disappeared from the daily list as of Jan. 19.
Christian Leuprecht, an associate professor of political science at Royal Military College, said Canada has tremendous incentive to keep any expulsions low key and avoid reprisals and diplomatic spats that might escalate.
"The Canadian government does not want to get into the sort of tit-for-tat that the British and the Russian governments have been in for the last almost three years with constantly expelling each other's diplomats in retaliation," he said.
Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird declined comment when asked if Canada had any hand in the fact four Russian embassy staffers were dropped from Ottawa's official list of diplomatic, consular and foreign government representatives.
"The matter is before the courts and on a national security file; I am just not inclined to comment at this time," he said in an interview.
Geoffrey O'Brian, a former director-general of counterintelligence at CSIS, said operatives pay close attention to military attachés at Russian embassies, trying to discern who is a member of the GRU, Russia's largest foreign intelligence agency.
"The military attachés are classically the group from which GRU officers come, so part of the spy game – the equivalent of Where's Waldo? – is to find out which of the military attaché staff are GRU officers and which aren't," Mr. O'Brian said.
SLt. Delisle – now the centre of what could be Canada's biggest spy scandal in more than half a century – had started to bounce back in the years after declaring bankruptcy in his late 20s, moving from the reserves to the regular forces and starting his climb up the ranks of enlisted men.
But starting late in 2004 the serviceman suffered a series of new setbacks.
Two young daughters aged 10 and 11 were hit by an SUV while walking near their home in suburban Halifax, an incident that put one in the hospital and sparked a years-long battle for money. The serviceman dealt with the fallout of his girls' injuries with his wife at his side. But court documents filed in the last 13 months indicate their union had since broken down and that they were now living in separate provinces.
It was in this period, the RCMP allege, that the serviceman started spying for a "foreign entity."
The charges came after another attempt to rebuild his life. When arrested, he was living with a different woman, maintaining shared custody of his two daughters and had graduated from Royal Military College and moved to a job at an important intelligence unit in Halifax. But even then the echoes of his former problems continued to reverberate.
Court documents show that he was continuing to have difficulties securing money – a total of $10,500 that was to be held in trust for his daughters – from the man who hit his children.
With reports from Jennifer MacMillan and Daniel Leblanc