Skip to main content

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau held a virtual cabinet meeting on Jan. 18 to discuss Canada’s response to the crisis in Ukraine.Justin Tang/The Canadian Press

A computer network disruption has hobbled services at Canada’s foreign affairs ministry for days, and one security expert says it is likely the result of a cyberattack.

Networks at the Department of Global Affairs had not been fully restored to normal as of Monday, two government sources told The Globe and Mail. The Globe is not identifying the sources because they were not authorized to discuss the matter publicly.

Ottawa’s Treasury Board of Canada Secretariat said in a statement that a “cyber incident involving Global Affairs” was detected on Jan. 19, “after which mitigation measures were taken.”

Canada’s cyberspy agency last week warned of Moscow-backed cyberattacks on Canadian critical infrastructure as Western countries prepare economic sanctions in the growing expectation that Russia will invade Ukraine.

Canada’s foreign ministry suffers network disruption as Ukraine-Russia tensions rise

Canada’s cyberspy agency warns of Russian cyberattacks on critical infrastructure

The Treasury Board statement said Global Affairs remains affected.

“Critical services for Canadians through Global Affairs Canada are currently functioning,” it said. “Some access to internet and internet-based services are not currently available as part of the mitigation measures and work is under way to restore them.”

The government declined to cast blame for the incident.

“This investigation is ongoing. We are unable to comment further on any specific details,” the statement said. The Treasury Board said it was working with one of Canada’s spy agencies, the Communications Security Establishment (CSE) and its Canadian Centre for Cyber Security.

Tensions have been rising between Russia and Western allies such as Canada over the future of Ukraine.

The Globe reported last week that Ottawa is considering sending small arms as well as night goggles, helmets, armoured vests and military radios to Kyiv for its armed forces. Also on the table is providing intelligence and cybersecurity advice, likely through the CSE, which is Canada’s signal intelligence agency.

Stephanie Carvin, a former national security analyst and an associate professor of international relations at the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs, said many people in the security community believe Global Affairs was hacked.

A Russian military buildup on the border with Ukraine – as many as 100,000 troops – has raised fears of an invasion that the White House has warned could come “at any point.” Russia has asked for guarantees that NATO will not expand membership to include Ukraine and other ex-Soviet states – a request that has been refused.

The Canadian government has been outspoken in its defence of Ukraine’s right to self-determination, and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau last Friday announced a loan of $120-million for Kyiv as it prepares for possible war with Russia.

Mr. Trudeau also signalled more support is coming as the Liberal government toughens its tone on the threat of Russian invasion and mulls more soldier training and defensive military gear for Ukraine.

The Canadian Centre for Cyber Security joined its counterparts in the United States and Britain last Thursday in urging Canadian companies, such as electrical utilities and energy firms, to watch out for cyberattacks from Russia.

The agency said in a statement that it is aware of foreign cyberthreat activities, including by Russian-backed actors, to target operators of Canadian critical infrastructure networks and their operational and information technology.

Retired major-general David Fraser said he believes “100 per cent” that Russia was behind what happened at Global Affairs, calling it a familiar manoeuvre by Russian President Vladimir Putin’s government.

“It is all about coercion and information dominance,” he said. “It is plausible deniability. It is hard to find the source and it is very disruptive.” Mr. Fraser said Mr. Putin is “testing the waters everywhere” with cyberattacks as well attempts to sow dissent within Ukraine to destabilize and overthrow the government.

He said it shouldn’t come as a surprise, because cyberattacks are one of Mr. Putin’s key offensive tools.

“When they think they need to send a message or do something preventive, for something they are going to do later on, they go on attack,” he said. “A little attack like this probably sends a pretty strong message back to the Prime Minister.”

Mr. Trudeau indicated on Monday that Ottawa is drawing up contingency plans for the potential evacuation of Canadian diplomatic and support staff from the embassy in Kyiv in the event of a Russian invasion.

“We are following the situation in Ukraine extremely closely,” he said when asked at a news conference if Canada would follow the lead of the U.S. and withdraw diplomatic personnel. “There are many contingency plans in place. The safety of Canadian diplomats and families is, of course, paramount.”

For subscribers: Get exclusive political news and analysis by signing up for the Politics Briefing.