Canada warned to be prepared for Russian-backed fake news and smears in Latvia mission

Latvia's foreign minister is warning that his country and Canada need to be prepared to "immediately counter" smear campaigns and fake news from the moment a NATO battle group sets foot in the Baltic country.

Conservative opposition critic says Canada needs to develop offensive cyberattack capabilities

Latvian counterpart Edgars Rinkevics, left, says Canada and Latvia need to be prepared to counter Russian-backed cyberattacks as a part of Canada's NATO mission to deter Russian aggression in the country. (Pavel Golovkin/Associated Press)

Latvia's foreign minister says the moment Canada's troops land in Latvia to lead a NATO battle group deterring Russian aggression both his country and Canada need to be ready to "immediately counter" Russian-backed smear campaigns and fake news.

In an interview with CBC News, Edgars Rinkevics also shed further light on what circumstances might cause his country to trigger the Western military alliance's self-defence clause following a potential massive cyberattack.

Four multinational battalion-sized formations are setting up camp in eastern Europe as a check on Russian expansionism, and one of them will be led by Canada.

Roughly 400 German troops, who recently arrived in Lithuania, faced a series of bogus stories of sexual misconduct meant to drive a wedge between them and the local population.

"Of course, it was rubbish and nonsense, but if both governments and both militaries did not take immediate action … I think we would have been in quite a disaster," Rinkevics said Thursday after a series of meetings with Canadian officials.

He came away from a meeting with Canada's chief of defence, Gen. Jonathan Vance, reassured that "appropriate measures are being taken."

A series of defence experts, in Canada and elsewhere, have said the likelihood of a full-on Russian invasion of the Baltics is remote, and instead NATO troops will likely face attempts to discredit and destabilize the region through propaganda and cyberattacks.

Rinkevics said he agrees with those assessments.

The rules under which the four battle groups will operate, how they will be respond to provocation and what sort of authority military commanders have are still being hammered out at NATO.

"I am confident we are progressing well there," Rinkevics said.

Invoking Article 5 

One of the most delicate discussions involves how to respond to a massive cyberattack, which the alliance now considers to be on par with a conventional attack using troops and tanks.

The policy was adopted at the 2014 NATO leaders summit in Wales and solidified at the followup gathering of 28 member nations last summer in Warsaw.

Minister of Foreign Affairs Chrystia Freeland welcomesRinkevics to her office on Parliament Hill on Thursday. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

But the leaders wouldn't say what circumstances would elicit a response in either cyberspace — or even the real world.

"We have deliberately decided to have vague language so a potential adversary doesn't mess with us," said Rinkevics.

"I think we all understand that if there is a cyberattack that take innocent lives; I think that this is an issue that would be of very serious concern to all of us. But we deliberately have chosen not to comment on what would be the red line."

An attack on infrastructure that takes down government servers is one thing, but "systems where you have people's lives at stake" is something that takes it to another level, he said. "I think in that case we would all treat such issues as Article 5 issues and we will come to defend each other."

Offensive capability

Canadian military officials have said troops deployed to Latvia — in both cyber and conventional terms — will operate in a defensive manner.

Conservative MP James Bezan, the party's defence critic, said he believes Canada needs to begin thinking clearly about how it moves from a defensive to an offensive posture.

"Russia or others, who are using the cyber world to destabilize, undermine and ultimately upset our Western democracies, if we continue to allow them to do it and get away with it without doing counter-cyberattacks to take out that capability, more and more of our partners, as well as Canada, are going to be at risk," he told CBC News in an interview.

Rinkevics is headed to Washington for further meetings with U.S. officials who have gone to great lengths to downplay the campaign rhetoric of President Donald Trump, who has called NATO obsolete, and the raised possibility he might not come to the defence of the Baltics.

The arguments have succeeded — for the moment.

"We believe we don't have any reason to doubt U.S. commitment to NATO," Rinkevics said.


Murray Brewster

Senior reporter, defence and security

Murray Brewster is senior defence writer for CBC News, based in Ottawa. He has covered the Canadian military and foreign policy from Parliament Hill for over a decade. Among other assignments, he spent a total of 15 months on the ground covering the Afghan war for The Canadian Press. Prior to that, he covered defence issues and politics for CP in Nova Scotia for 11 years and was bureau chief for Standard Broadcast News in Ottawa.