'Pattern of misbehaviour' keeps Russia from G7 ministers meeting, but it still dominates agenda

Even when it doesn't explicitly refer to Russia, the schedule of the G7 foreign and security ministers meeting in Toronto, which began Sunday and continues for the next two days, is loaded with references to cybersecurity and reinforcing democracy.

Schedule of talks in Toronto littered with references to cybersecurity, reinforcing democracy

Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland, centre, chairs a meeting of counterparts from France, the United States, the United Kingdom, Germany, Japan, Italy and the European Union in Toronto on Sunday. The talks on peace and security are part of the run up to the G7 leaders summit in June in Charlevoix, Que. (Chris Young/Canadian Press)

There was a time, not so long ago, when Russia sat at the table where Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland and her G7 counterparts gathered on Sunday.

That group used to be called the G8.

That now seems like a lifetime ago.

It was before Moscow was expelled following the annexation of Crimea, before the war in Eastern Ukraine and the seemingly endless madness that has consumed Syria.

And it was before Donald Trump turned U.S. politics on its head with — as some allege — the active endorsement and outright cyber intervention of Moscow.

G7 foreign ministers have now agreed to set up a working group to "call out" Russian "maligned behaviour in all of its manifestations," British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson said Monday, "whether it is cyberwarfare, whether it's disinformation, whatever ... assassination attempts.

"I think one of the interesting things about what is going on at the moment is Russia is so unbelievably clever at sowing doubt and confusion and spreading all this fake news to muddy the waters. So, we think there is a role for the G7 in just trying to provide some clarity about what we all collectively think the Russians are doing in terms of maligned behaviour."

The G7 agenda — even where it doesn't explicitly refer to Russia — is littered with references to cybersecurity and reinforcing democracy.

It's not much of a stretch to guess who they're talking about there.

To be sure, there is a wide range of crises — particularly in Myanmar and Venezuela — to occupy ministers and leaders as they trundle toward the G7 leaders summit in Charlevoix, Que., in June.

But nothing focuses the attention more than survival, and that is what many see at stake in the debate on securing elections, and beating back attempts to de-legitimize and interfere with democratic institutions and expression.

So while Moscow is no longer at the table, it still casts a long shadow over it.

West aware of Kremlin playbook

The good news, according Wesley Wark, an expert in intelligence and cyber warfare, is that Western democracies are aware of the Kremlin's playbook and alert for signs of interference.

That means much of what will be discussed over the next two days and in June will involve trying to anticipate Russia's next moves.

"I think there's going to be a discussion about what can be anticipated from the Putin regime in the medium and longer term," said Wark, a University of Ottawa professor.

British Foreign Minister Boris Johnson, centre left, sits alongside Acting U.S. Secretary of State John J. Sullivan, centre right, the EU's Federica Mogherini, left, and French Foreign Affairs Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian during a working session on the Middle East Sunday. The meetings continue Monday and Tuesday. (Chris Young/Canadian Press)

Wark said there appears to be a sense of urgency — but not panic — among the G7 nations as they look ahead to events such as the U.S. midterm elections this year and Canada's federal election in 2019.

The Trudeau government recently committed more than $500 million toward bolstering and reorganizing the country's cyber defences, and pledged an additional $200 million toward better signals intelligence at the country's high-tech overseas eavesdropping agency, the Communications Security Establishment.

There is a calm sense of criticality at work, said Wark.

"It's not an, 'Oh my God, this is happening' moment. Rather, 'Oh my God, what do we do about this going forward.'"

Russia has denied interfering in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, but an investigation headed by special counsel and former FBI chief Robert Mueller has been gathering steam.

It is unclear how far it will go.

Germany, according to published reports, went out of its way on Sunday to emphasize there will be no swift return of Russia to the table of the world's leading economies.

The reasons for its expulsion have not been fully addressed, said German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas, who was quoted by Germany's public broadcaster, Deutsche Welle.

It is somehow fitting that Russia dominates the agenda as Canada prepares to host this year's gathering.

In 1995, Boris Yeltsin, the former Russian president, attended the G7 summit in Canada as an observer on the road to Moscow's full participation three years later.

It was a watershed moment.

But that was a lifetime ago.


Murray Brewster

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.


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