How Russia’s attack on Freeland got traction in Canada

Terry Glavin traces Moscow’s “Nazi-grandfather” calumny through a maze of cranks, propagandists and Putin fanciers—to Canada’s mainstream media

Now that we’re well into the second week of an imbroglio that should be remembered as one of the most disgraceful, embarrassing, or at least hilarious events in the recent history of Canadian journalism, the “Chrystia Freeland Lied About Her Family’s Nazi Past” hoax is accruing to itself ever thicker layers of absurdity and silliness.

It was a hoax, we would all admit, if we were capable of resisting the inclination to double-down on the preposterous claims and dirty insinuations that have been allowed to muddy the significance of what has really happened here. It was a hoax, perpetrated on the Canadian public, in service of Vladimir Putin’s gangland regime in Moscow.

Chrystia Freeland, the journalist-turned-politician who was appointed Canada’s Minister of Foreign Affairs only two months ago, has not been shown to have lied about anything. And as the plot thickened, Freeland found herself being accused of engaging in her own hoax by blaming the Russians for her misfortunes.

Quite apart from the adorable Canadian naiveté involved in passive-aggressively permitting the Kremlin to headline-hack itself out of a national spotlight that should have been shining last week on Putin’s belligerence in Ukraine and the Baltics, there are a couple of things that distinguish this particular Kremlin caper from the run-of-the-mill jobs.

The first is that it’s a textbook case of Russian disinformation by conspiracy theory. The second is that this time around, the Russians were caught red-handed.

Unfortunately, we’ve all spent a great deal of effort being clever in our elucidations upon how to properly distinguish between a Ukrainian patriot and a Nazi collaborator in the terror time of the 1940s, and about where one might situate the boundaries of Soviet-occupied Eastern Galicia on contemporary maps of the Polish-Ukrainian borderlands, and other such boring ephemera.

This is what Moscow wanted, and it also wanted the not-especially-bright among us to be wondering out loud and often about whether it might be true that Freeland is a Russophobic Nazi sympathizer who can’t be trusted with the Foreign Affairs portfolio.

To that purpose, the Globe and Mail’s Tuesday, March 7 article, headlined “Freeland knew her grandfather was editor on Nazi newspaper,” was intepreted by the glamorous American celebrity paranoiac Glenn Greenwald—the most assertive champion of Edward Snowden, the famous U.S. National Security Agency hacker who has been enjoying the perks of Russian asylum ever since he absconded to Moscow in June 2013—in this way: “The exposé on how Canada’s Foreign Minister knowingly lied for 20 years about grandfather’s past, now blames Russia.”

RELATED: Russia’s coming attack on Canada

The Bolivarian catastrophe of Venezuela’s own Telesur television channel handled the story exactly the same way, as did all the usual Canadian “alternative” media undertakings, even though there was nothing in Robert Fife’s Globe and Mail story, or anyone else’s reporting, that showed Freeland had lied about anything, knowingly or otherwise, much less for 20 years. And it was not Freeland who first implicated Moscow in the hubbub. She merely raised the subject of Russia’s well-documented European monkey-wrenching, which she was warned to be personally on guard against at the Munich Security Conference on February 17.

As for who first noticed that Moscow was gunning for Freeland, that’s something that has yet to show up in any banner Canadian headlines. It was the European Union’s East StratCom Task Force, a unit of the External Action Service (the EU’s foreign ministry and diplomatic branch). The Task Force was set up in March 2015 as a kind of early warning system to detect incoming Kremlin disinformation campaigns.

In its January 26 Disinformation Digest, the Task Force specifically identified the “Freeland Lied About Her Family’s Nazi Past” hoax, which by then was already circulating within the nether regions of the pro-Kremlin web, under the category of “pro-Kremlin disinformation” and “fake media stories that support Russia’s policies.” The Task Force flagged the Freeland smear project under the campy headline “And you are a Nazi, too!” along with several ongoing efforts to affix the Nazi tag to “anyone opposing the Kremlin’s interests,” especially in Ukraine and the Baltic states. Canadian Forces personnel are active in both arenas.

Usually, Moscow enjoys a degree of marginally plausible deniability by circulating its nastiest propaganda via merely Kremlin-admiring webzines and usefully idiotic “anti-imperialist” pseudo-news operations. But the effort to attack Freeland’s character and undermine her credibility first came straight out of Russia’s embassy in Ottawa, on January 11, the day after Prime Minister Justin Trudeau appointed Freeland to the foreign-affairs post.

That was the day an embassy official shopped the purported bombshell about the Freeland family’s past to Justin Ling, the Canadian features editor for Vice News. The official provided Ling with two academic papers written by Freeland’s uncle, John Paul Himka, about Chrystia Freeland’s grandfather, Michael Chomiak. A Ukrainian nationalist, lawyer and journalist, Chomiak had ended up serving as the titular editor of Krakivs’ki Visti, a newspaper Himka describes as “the organ of established Ukrainian nationalists operating within the limits imposed by Nazi rule.”

The newspaper obligingly printed obscenely anti-Semitic material, as Himka’s research shows (Freeland also assisted Himka in a 1996 study of Krakivs’ki Visti during Chomiak’s tenure). A “Nazi collaborator,” then, a term Freeland has never been known to use to describe her grandfather, who died when she was 15, and who Freeland had never mentioned except fleetingly as a grandparent who had fled the Soviet depredations in Ukraine during the Second World War. Which was true.

RELATED: Will Freeland’s fractious relationship with Putin affect her job?

Ling decided to take a pass on the “story” because there really was no “story” to be told, but the smear erupted in headlines last week after Freeland and Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan announced that the Canadian Forces training mission in Ukraine, which has been besieged by Russia for the past three years, would continue until at least March, 2019. Moscow was quite unhappy about the decision.

When questioned about the lurid Secret Nazi Past smear, Freeland pointed out that it isn’t exactly a secret, as several U.S. intelligence agencies have pointed out, and as German chancellor Angela Merkel has similarly noticed, that Moscow is devoting itself to the destabilization of western democracies. “I think it shouldn’t come as a surprise if these same efforts were used against Canada,” Freeland said, and thus, hey presto, the Kremlin-friendly spin became: Freeland Dodges Question, Blames Russia.

From its first public eruption in the Moscow blogosphere to the semi-respectability of Polish tabloids and then to its extraordinary mainstream legitimation by the Globe and Mail, the trajectory of the Nazi-tagging disinformation project aimed at Freeland follows an arc through a digital maze of far-right cranks, far-left tirade launchers and hopelessly disreputable Putin fanciers.

For all its shock-headline sensation, there is no real “news” involved. The content is relentlessly repetitive and usually just cut-and-pasted from one website to another, torqued up with wild headlines and sordid spins. The first Moscow blogger with the “story,” for instance, claims that Freeland “stands for the same race hatred as her grandfather” and is determined to “cleanse” Ukraine of its Jews, Russians and Poles.

Ironically, the replicated content, on perhaps hundreds of websites, derives almost entirely from research undertaken by Freeland’s uncle, and from archives made public years ago by Freeland’s family. If Chrystia Freeland had wanted to hide some dark family secret, she and her relatives have been going about it exactly the wrong way.

One of most comical deployments of the Kremlin’s “And you are a Nazi, too!” device occurred last October, when no less a Kremlin figure than Dmitry Kiselyov, deputy director of Russian state television, took to the airwaves to personally deliver a 10-minute “documentary” about the 1956 Hungarian uprising. Contrary to the historical record, Kiselyov’s documentary purported to show that the anti-Soviet, pro-democracy uprising was really a bloody rampage engineered by Nazis trained and organized by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency.

Last December, the English-language channel of RT News—a Kremlin propaganda arm that masquerades as a news organization with a $300 million annual budget from the Russian government—reported “news” from Riga, Latvia, under this headline: “Swastika-looking snowflakes pop up at Latvian Christmas market.” The “swastikas” were in fact traditional Latvian folk runes. From RT News last summer: “Gardener let off hook for mowing swastika into Latvian president’s lawn.” Except it wasn’t a “swastika.”

Moscow has waged its most vicious, sustained and transparently absurd “Nazi” smear campaigns against the Ukraine government, and it has been doing so ever since Putin lost his grip on Kyiv when Ukraine’s kleptocrat-president Viktor Yanukovych fled to Moscow following the November 2013 Euromaidan uprising.

Putin has been waging a hybrid war in Eastern Ukraine pitting proxy “separatists” against Ukrainian security forces in a bloody conflict in the Donbass region that has left 10,000 people dead. Moscow’s military annexation of the Crimean peninsula, in violation of several international treaties, has earned Putin a suspension from the Group of Eight (G8) countries, the opprobrium of his fellow United Nations Security Council members, and a suite of international sanctions.

Moscow has responded with a cyber-warfare campaign of hacking and disinformation, and a persistent, ugly propaganda line: the Kyiv government is run by Nazis, and its international backers are Nazi sympathisers.

While it’s true that the chaos in Donbass has attracted combatants from neo-Nazi Ukrainian groupuscules, the “Right Sector” coalition in Ukraine was a total bust in the May 2014 elections that cemented Yanukovich’s ouster. The rightists scored less than two per cent of the national vote. That hasn’t stopped Moscow’s smears, however. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov insists that the Right Sector secretly controls the Ukraine government. But then, Lavrov also claims the Canadian government is controlled by a “rabid” Ukrainian diaspora.

Marko Suprun, a Ukrainian-Canadian filmmaker and presenter with the StopFakeNews channel in Kyiv, says it’s significant that so much of the Nazi-tagging aimed at Freeland has percolated in the alternative media in Poland. “This is a new level of targeted fake news,” Suprun told me. “There was and remains a concerted effort to drive a 70 year old wedge between Warsaw and Kyiv.”

Anyone who claims that Freeland isn’t being subjected to a targeted disinformation campaign doesn’t understand how disinformation works, Suprun said. “Notice the attack on Freeland started just around the time when Canada was deciding to extend its military training mission in Ukraine,” he said. “The Kremlin has long been trying to turn a fake stereotype into a reality, that Ukrainians are Nazis and that Kyiv was the target of a junta.”

With the largest Ukrainian diaspora in the world, Canada is especially vulnerable to Russian destabilization efforts. The Communications Security Establishment is in the early stages of a threat assessment to determine whether Canada’s electoral system is vulnerable to foreign disruption, and the events of the past couple of weeks will likely draw in greater resources from the Canadian Security Intelligence Service and the RCMP.

As for how Freeland is holding up, she seems to be taking it all in stride. “Canadians expect their government to be focused on their priorities,” Freeland told me. “That’s exactly what I am doing.”

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