Skip to main content

Three of the four Russian intelligence operatives expelled from Canada on Monday were conducting cyberactivities out of the Montreal consulate aimed at discrediting the World Anti-Doping Agency and spreading disinformation about Canada and its closest allies, a source has told The Globe and Mail.

A senior federal official who was not authorized to speak on the record said Russian spies targeted the Montreal-based World Anti-Doping Agency after the International Olympic Committee barred Russia’s team from the 2018 Winter Olympics in South Korea as punishment for alleged state-backed doping at the 2014 Games in Sochi.

Russian trolls and automated bots used social media in an attempt to discredit the doping allegations and assert they were part of a U.S. plot to interfere in Russia’s presidential election. Vladimir Putin won a landslide victory on March 18.

The official said the three Russians from the Montreal consulate were also using social media as a way to sow divisions in the United States, Canada and Europe. The source did not provide further details of the Russian actions.

Speaking to reporters from Seoul on Wednesday night, Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland said the expulsion of the Russians followed “very intensive diplomatic work” with Canada’s allies, adding that the government chose its words “carefully” in its statement on the matter.

“This was an act of solidarity. It was also an act which will serve to safeguard Canadian democracy. We chose individuals who have been part of a broader Russian campaign in many countries, including Canada, to interfere with our democracy,” Ms. Freeland said.

Andy Ellis, a former assistant director of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) and CEO of security consulting firm ICEN Group, said Russian “active-measure operations” (covert attempts to probe, disrupt or influence the West) are completely in character with its sophisticated spying services.

“They are using modern technology to influence the way the world functions in their favour,” Mr. Ellis said in an interview on Thursday. “This is consistent with 80 years of tradecraft. It is what they do and they are just using cyber to do it.”

Mr. Ellis said he is not surprised that the Russian intelligence service would try to cast doubt on the Olympic doping allegations and the work of the World Anti-Doping Agency.

“Clearly they were caught red-handed,” he said. “But Russia will try to turn world public opinion in their favour so they will spread disinformation in order to achieve their objectives. It is a huge part of what the Russian intelligence service do and they are very successful at it.”

Russian embassy spokesman Kirill Kalinin did not respond to requests for comment.

Russia announced the expulsion of more than 150 diplomats, including 60 Americans, on Thursday, and was closing a U.S. consulate in retaliation for the wave of Western expulsions of Russian diplomats over the poisoning of an ex-spy Sergei Skripal and his adult daughter in Britain.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said at a news conference on Thursday that Moscow will kick out the same number of diplomats from each of those countries in retaliation. It did not announce how many Canadian diplomats would be expelled.

Canada kicked out four Russians on Monday and denied entry to three diplomatic staffers who applied to enter the country. The expulsion of three diplomats from the Montreal consulate − which, according to Global Affairs’ website, has 13 Russian employees − is a 25-per-cent reduction in staffing levels at that office.

The move was part of a wider Western response to the alleged nerve-agent poisoning of the Skripals.

The Canadian government has refused to release the names of the four expelled Russians for privacy reasons.

Russia has repeatedly denied responsibility and has offered conspiracy theories that the United Kingdom itself was behind the use of a Soviet military-grade nerve agent in the attack, which also injured about 30 bystanders in Salisbury, England, on March 4.

Wesley Wark, a national-security expert at the University of Ottawa, said the fact that Canadian authorities found out about the activities in Canada may indicate that Russian diplomats’ cyberactivity capabilities have outrun their own security protocols. He suspects Russian intelligence officials thought working from the Montreal consulate rather than the embassy in Ottawa would be less noticeable to Canadian intelligence officials.

Mr. Wark said CSIS may have been tracking the expelled Russian diplomats before the Salisbury attack, and the international response prompted the government to kick them out.

“Security agencies much prefer keeping an eye on known intelligence operatives as opposed to expelling them,” he said. “Expelling identified operatives usually ends up with you losing your own intelligence capabilities in tit-for-tat expulsions.”

Lubomyr Luciuk, a political geography professor at the Royal Military College of Canada, has also raised concerns about the activities of the Russian embassy – particularly one diplomat – with Global Affairs Canada. In a letter to deputy minister Ian Shugart last November, Mr. Luciuk accused Mr. Kalinin, the embassy spokesman, of attempting to undermine the government and drum up ethnic tensions in Canada. Mr. Luciuk specifically took issue with tweets Mr. Kalinin posted on the embassy’s Twitter account in in October and November of 2017 that allege monuments honoring Ukrainian Nazi collaborators could be found in Canada.

“Some Russian officials in this country have attempted to foment ethnic and societal discord, which I think is both inappropriate and provocative,” said Prof. Luciuk in an interview.

He also accused the Russian embassy of taking part in a smear campaign against Ms. Freeland last year that highlighted her maternal Ukrainian grandfather’s role as chief editor of a Nazi newspaper in occupied Poland that vilified Jews during the Second World War. Ms. Freeland’s family history has become a target for Russian forces seeking to discredit one of Canada’s highly placed defenders of Ukraine.

Global Affairs Canada did not respond to a query about the concerns raised by Prof. Luciuk.

Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale says measures taken Monday against Russia were “targeted.” The government announced the expulsion of four Russian diplomats as the U.S. and other allies took similar actions.

The Canadian Press