Speculations about the Russian double agent Sergei Skripal’s assassination attempt in London have swept up many nations in the Western World. The secretive circumstances surrounding the case, particularly regarding Skripal’s past as a double agent for the MI6, have allowed for speculations by journalists on all sides of the issue. Theresa May’s government was first to expel Russian diplomats from their London offices as a retaliation measure, swiftly followed by Donald Trump and Justin Trudeau. European Council President Donald Tusk says that 14 EU countries, including France, Poland and the Baltic states, will be taking similar measures. A combined total of 342 diplomats have been swept up in these diplomatic gestures by all sides.
Where does Canada fit in this complicated international situation? Recently, CBC interviewed the Director of the NATO Strategic Communications Centre of Excellence, Janis Sarts. She warned that Canada is the next natural target for Russian election interference. In addition to the strong allegations of Russian interference in the 2016 US Presidential Elections, there have also been rumors of meddling attempts in Germany, France and Czech Republic, among others. Canada will soon need to start paying closer attention to the strength of its democratic institutions and their vulnerability to foreign influence. Even without any external interference, a doubt may be cast that may undermine democratic processes unpredictably and destabilize Canadian leadership. It may also contribute to the confusion in the NATO block, which is already spreading, as to how to react to these new kinds of threats.
Western mainstream media appears to have sided with the UK, while being relatively accepting and without emotional calls for action. An exception to that rule is the Globe and Mail, which published an opinion piece titled “Back to the USSR: Putin and the new Cold War”, which places the Salisbury attack within the context of many of Putin’s actions in the former Soviet republics. The article was heavily criticised by the Russian Embassy in Canada.
Today, mainstream Canadian media outlets such as National Post and CBC seem to address the issue in fairly neutral tones. There is a clear presumption of Russian guilt – CBC cited a British businessman calling it “state-sanctioned terrorism”, yet the notion of a foreign state ordering an assassination does not seem to create panic. While Justin Trudeau has taken a strong diplomatic stance on the issue, the outpouring of think pieces in the Canadian media about what these new threats to the international system mean for Canada has yet to come.
Meanwhile, an attitude of innocence and a somewhat ironic confusion dominates the Russian media. It has repeatedly stressed the lack of observable evidence – ignoring how the intelligence character of the case may mean not all evidence is necessarily available to the press. Whether or not there really is evidence is unknowable, and yet, Russian media, not entirely unlike Canadian and British media, seems to accept the state line without much questioning. Izvestia, a Moscow based outlet, reported that “London has not produced any evidence yet of Moscow's involvement in this incident. Nevertheless, Great Britain was supported by many Western countries”. One outlet, Moscow’s Nezavisimaya Gazeta, called Chrystia Freeland’s “statement about Ottawa’s support for Britian’s unjustified accusations against Russia” was “puzzling.” Similar tones echo through Russian media coverage, where plausible deniability is maintained instead of analyzing potential culprits. Daily outlet Korrespondent from Kyiv said Freeland’s statements are “unacceptable and deserve condemnation.”
These nuances in Russian media coverage of the event are subtle, but they shed light on the way the Russian media operates and how ordinary Russians often perceive that the West irrationally accuses Russia of crimes without evidence out of sheer ‘Russophobia.’ Understanding that the Russian mindset differs significantly from that of the ordinary Canadian may not seem pressing today, where the issue at hand is an attack on a foreign country with little immediate consequences for Canada today. But if NATO analysts are right, Canadian policy makers need to realize that the differences between Russia and Canada are deeper than they might appear on the surface. And unless Canada invests seriously not just in diplomacy, but in quality intelligence analysis, it may be unprepared to deal with potential Russian hybrid threats and political fallout that is sure to follow.
Written by MIREMS consultant Paula Zvejniece. Born and raised in Latvia, Paula is studying War Studies at King’s College in London.