Russian-language propagandists are taking aim at Canada's military mission to Latvia by linking the troops to the Armed Forces' most-disgraced commander.
A website with the same name as a prominent Russian news program has re-published infamous photos of convicted killer Russell Williams, a former commander in Canada's air force, posing in women's underwear, suggesting the Canadian military is full of homosexuals and shouldn't be counted on by Latvians.
'It's a strategic and very cleverly planned campaign.' — Rita Rudusa, Baltic Centre for Media Excellence
Canadian commanders had been warned to expect a barrage of negative Russian propaganda over this mission.
The article appeared on a Russian-language news site called Vesti.lv, which is also the name of a TV news show in Russia.
The story mocks Canada's military mission in Latvia with the headline, "The Gay Battlegroup: NATO has dug into Latvia."
It goes on to say that the U.S. has the only worthwhile military in the Baltics and all the others — including Canada — are "deeply comical."
The first wave of 450 Canadian soldiers, led by Col. Josh Major, arrived in Latvia this past weekend as part of a mission to deter any Russian aggression in the Baltic region.
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Major says the anti-Canada propaganda is "not unexpected."
"We can't stop people from using the internet and posting and blogging, but we can be aware of what they are doing and, when appropriate, take action to set the record straight," Major said, adding that Williams's crimes were "appalling" and not representative of Canada's military.
A Latvian expert in Russian propaganda against NATO, Col. Ilmars A. Lejins, says every country in the alliance with troops in the region has been targeted, and Canada should expect the internet assault to continue.
"It happened to German troops deployed in Lithuania, British troops in Estonia, it happened to American troops deployed in Poland," he told CBC News at Camp Adazi, where NATO has set up its base.
Latvia is awash with over-the-air Russian TV and radio programs and a number of pro-Kremlin blogs and websites disseminate multiple stories every day that cast the NATO military alliance in a bad light.
"You don't need guns anymore, all you need is an army of shrewd youngsters, who are the trolls and bloggers that produce this sort of content," said Rita Rudusa, of the Baltic Centre for Media Excellence in Riga.
The group was founded after the Russian takeover of Crimea and the conflict in eastern Ukraine led to a dramatic increase in anti-western propaganda.
"It's not white noise. It's a strategic and very cleverly planned campaign to weaken our resilience, our society's resilience to any sort of threat."
And it works, she adds.
"We can see the eroding of trust in democratic institutions and European values."
She says there are dozens of anti-NATO news sites and, while many are obscure, the stories often get shared widely on social media.
CBC News found one article from this week that suggested NATO troops could be walking around Riga with loaded guns, posing a public safety threat.
It jumped on the idea that a large number of Latvians who talked to the CBC were against the NATO deployment in the country.
In fact, the article suggested a majority of Latvians supported the mission but there was also dissent.