Russia’s Strategy for Perception Management through Public Diplomacy and Influence Operations: The Canadian Case

In: The Hague Journal of Diplomacy
Author: Evan H. Potter1
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  • 1 Department of Communication, University of Ottawa, Ottawa, ON K1N 6N5, Canada
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This article argues that official Russian global media platforms such as Russia Today (RT) and Sputnik News, as well as Kremlin-friendly news outlets, represent the overt face of Russia’s global information ecology. The article discusses how such platforms fit into a framework for public diplomacy that has less-restrictive conceptual boundaries, and examines the intersection of public diplomacy with other dimensions of a nation-state’s operations for international influence. The article avers that a broader understanding of Russia’s international communication practices permits the inclusion of so-called ‘sharp’ practices as part of the strategic communications component of public diplomacy. It examines the case study of a Canadian foreign minister’s family history, illustrating Russia’s approach to international perception management through public diplomacy.


This article argues that official Russian global media platforms such as Russia Today (RT) and Sputnik News, as well as Kremlin-friendly news outlets, represent the overt face of Russia’s global information ecology. The article discusses how such platforms fit into a framework for public diplomacy that has less-restrictive conceptual boundaries, and examines the intersection of public diplomacy with other dimensions of a nation-state’s operations for international influence. The article avers that a broader understanding of Russia’s international communication practices permits the inclusion of so-called ‘sharp’ practices as part of the strategic communications component of public diplomacy. It examines the case study of a Canadian foreign minister’s family history, illustrating Russia’s approach to international perception management through public diplomacy.

A Truth that’s told with bad intent
Beats all the lies you can invent.
William Blake2


Since the allegation of ‘Russian meddling’ in the 2016 United States (US) election, academic analysts and Western practitioners of public diplomacy have been encountering a steady barrage of apocalyptic headlines and references to the near existential threat posed by Russia’s ‘interference’ in Western democracies. Such dire warnings have referenced the seemingly successful use of information assets in Russia’s doctrine of ‘hybrid warfare’ — a combination of deception, disinformation and conventional military force (that is, kinetic measures) — to take Crimea, destabilise Eastern Ukraine, resecure the Kremlin’s ‘near abroad’ and ‘return’ ‘active measures’ to Russian foreign policy and adapt them to the social media age. Coupled with the assertions that Russia and the West are embroiled in a new Cold War, there is great consternation in Western capitals about how we are seeing just the ‘tip of the iceberg’ of Russia’s new information war to destabilise liberal democracies. As a consequence, there is closer monitoring of Russia’s international media outlets such as Russia Today (RT), the creation of a ‘democratic defense’ against Russian propaganda,3 the development of new ‘counter-propaganda’ programmes to address the Russian information threat,4 and, at the multilateral level, the Group of Seven has created a mechanism to identify and track suspected disinformation operations.5

Although the allegations of Russian meddling in American politics through internet troll farms were a staple of nightly cable news in the United States in the aftermath of the 2016 American election, Canada, at the time, did not appear to have the same level of public concern about such interference.6 Indeed, Russian narratives do have a presence — although perhaps not a profound resonance — in Canada by virtue of the fact that five to six million Canadians out of a population of some 36 million have direct access to RT, the Kremlin’s global broadcaster, on their basic cable television packages. Moreover, the Russian government has been paying Canada’s cable companies to carry RT programming, leading to headlines such as ‘Canadian TV Providers Being Paid to Carry Russian “Propaganda Machine”’.7 The extent of Russia’s willingness to attempt to influence Canadian public opinion was put into stark relief in early 2017 when media reports surfaced that the maternal grandfather of Chrystia Freeland, Canada’s then newly appointed foreign minister, had been the Editor-in-Chief of a newspaper in Nazi-occupied Poland that had published anti-Semitic articles. The timing of the media reports was certainly suspicious, since they implied that Freeland’s family had a ‘Nazi skeleton’ in its closet. The Russian Embassy in Ottawa encouraged Canadian news organisations to pursue the story.

Russia’s efforts to manage public perceptions in Canada need to be set in the context of Canada’s very active and public support of Ukraine in the face of Russia’s interference in that country, including the provision of non-lethal military support to Ukraine (approved under Canada’s previous Conservative government) and the imposition of new sanctions (the Justice for Victims of Corrupt Foreign Officials Act, known as the Sergei Magnitsky Law). A further strain in Russian–Canadian bilateral relations was Canada’s lead role in the establishment of a battalion-sized battle group in Latvia, known as Operation Reassurance, as part of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s (NATO) enhanced forward presence to deter Russian use of force against a NATO territory.

The premise of this article is that the network of Kremlin-leaning unofficial media sites, along with RT as the main platform of Russia’s international broadcasting system, and its sister news site, Sputnik International, should be seen through the lens of a more holistic understanding of the role and function of a nation’s public diplomacy in the management of global public perceptions. If the normative assumptions often attached to the practice of Western public diplomacy are stripped away — namely, that public diplomacy’s goal should be to develop, in good faith and without deception, greater mutual understanding among countries — then practitioners and analysts can be more open to the idea that public diplomacy is, in fact, not only a more neutral term, but its boundaries are wider than is accepted by more ‘state-centric’ conceptualisations of it as a concept.8 As such, analysts should conceptualise Russia’s public diplomacy as one track in Russia’s approach to global information management, a track that, as the occasion requires, can be supplemented by more ‘sharp power’ practices — that is, selective and/or misleading use of information to advance preferred state-supported narratives — that are attributed to some of Russia’s international information campaigns.9 In other words, while public diplomacy and influence operations can operate separately, they can also be mutually reinforcing ‘communication lanes’ to achieve specific geostrategic purposes. To be sure, this is not a particularly novel thesis, but the purpose in this article is to show that public diplomacy, rather than being analysed in a more restrictive context of international cultural or academic relations, should, in fact, be seen as part of a nation’s overall global perception management system. Certainly, the case of Russia’s public diplomacy in Canada demonstrates that Russia views public diplomacy and influence operations in a more holistic context. Furthermore, the Canadian case shows that Russia’s strategic communications — in the form of its media relations and social media messages sent from its official embassy accounts — sought to promote a counter-narrative to what Russia perceived to be an anti-Russian narrative in Western media.

From a Western doctrinal standpoint there is a political need to separate a country’s influence operations (which can include deception) from what are perceived to be more ‘positive’, ‘softer’ and less adversarial forms of state-driven international communication, which are often subsumed within the idea of public diplomacy. Military and intelligence organisations operate in separate information lanes from civilian agencies (including foreign ministries, international aid and cultural organisations, and international public broadcasters). The former are permitted to engage in deniable and covert information operations and the latter agencies operate overtly, disseminating what Philip Taylor terms ‘democratic propaganda’ or white propaganda (that is, truthful but selective information) to influence global public opinion.10 As this article’s case of Russia’s perception management in Canada will show, Russia’s current international information doctrine, a heritage of the Soviet Union, does not consider such a separation in a peacetime context as essential from a normative standpoint. Russia’s version of public diplomacy therefore plays a central role in the execution of the Kremlin’s ‘hybrid war’, a doctrine tested most prominently in Ukraine, and whose ‘sharp’ information dimension can be flexed — as necessary — in countries such as Canada.11 Russia, like its competitor nations, routinely blends or calibrates its hard power (by coercion/threats and bribes) and soft power (by generating willing followership and attraction), a practice that American commentators such as Joseph Nye Jr. praise as ‘smart power’.12

This article begins by conceptualising public diplomacy and examining the intersection of public diplomacy with other dimensions of nation-states’ international influence operations. The discussion then addresses Russia’s doctrinal approach to integrated information power. The next section discusses the instruments of Russia’s public diplomacy and perception management, a network of often mutually reinforcing official and unofficial platforms that frequently work together in support of particular national narratives that serve Russia’s geostrategic goals. The final part of the article presents the case of Russia’s attempts to reframe public perceptions surrounding the Canadian foreign minister’s family history in 2017. This case illustrates the principles of Russia’s information-war doctrine and demonstrates that Russia’s public diplomacy (its international communication ecosystem) — a combination of Kremlin-financed official broadcasters, strategic communication by the Russian Embassy through media relations and social media messaging, and unofficial online blogs and alternative news sites that are sympathetic to Russia’s world view — sought to gain access to Canadian mainstream media to amplify and further legitimate Russia’s preferred narratives. From a theoretical perspective, the case points to public diplomacy being more accommodative to the role of non-state actors such as Kremlin-leaning blogs and media outlets, given that they have a clear agenda (‘intentionality’) to support a state-sanctioned narrative.13 The case also demonstrates how it may be difficult under certain conditions to make a clear distinction between a nation-state’s use of communication for hard and soft power purposes.

Defining and Conceptualising Public Diplomacy

Caitlin Schindler observes that ‘academics and practitioners have struggled for decades to adequately define, distinguish, or correlate public diplomacy with propaganda, public affairs, public relations, and soft power’.14 To this list we could add strategic communications, smart power, information operations, disinformation campaigns, psychological operations, advocacy, lobbying, nation-branding, soft diplomacy and, more recently, ‘sharp power’. The conceptual confusion is understandable, since some terms denote precise types of communication and others represent concepts that could be contested. For example, when does soft power mutate into hard power? One nation’s cultural diplomacy, such as the promotion of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning/queer (LGBTQ) rights, may be perceived by a nation with more conservative values as a form of hard power and interference in its domestic affairs.

In this context, NATO’s definition of strategic communication provides a more expansive, inclusive and realistic definition of international communication, as practised by nation-states:

[…] the coordinated and appropriate use of NATO’s communications activities and capabilities — Public Diplomacy, Public Affairs, Military Public Affairs, Information Operations and Psychological Operations, as appropriate — in support of Alliance policies, operations and activities, and in order to advance NATO’s aims.15

For instance, strategic communication would include disinformation operations — that is, purposefully disseminating inaccurate or untruthful information with an intent to deceive — as appropriate under certain conditions. Yet, as Schindler points out, this is an overly mechanistic and functional definition because it omits the relational aspects of communication; it understates the importance of engagement and relationship-building.16 It also does not fully anticipate the constantly shifting information environment, as characterised by the rise of ‘fake news’ or Wikileaks, and the asymmetrical forms of information warfare made possible through ‘troll farms’ and ‘cyber-hacking’.

Figure 1
Figure 1

Public Diplomacy pyramid

Citation: The Hague Journal of Diplomacy 14, 4 (2019) ; 10.1163/1871191X-14401070

Public diplomacy scholar Nicholas Cull’s taxonomy of core public diplomacy practices offers yet another perspective on ‘open’ forms of diplomacy. These core practices include listening, advocacy, international broadcasting, exchange diplomacy and cultural diplomacy.17 Using the illustration of a pyramid, Fig. 1 above shows how these core practices can be conceived in terms of the level of government control over preferred messages. Strategic communication (stratcom) comprises open communication work — the official websites and social media presence of foreign ministries through their headquarters and embassy network, all forms of media relations and stakeholder outreach. It is the official messages and narratives that a government wishes to communicate both on and off the record. In this way, strategic communication is distinct from less mediated (government-controlled) outreach such as cultural diplomacy and educational exchanges. Strategic communication in this model of public diplomacy is shorter term and can use facts very selectively to frame issues to accommodate a nation’s preferred narrative.

Advocacy, for its part, is considered to be campaign-oriented and would include strategic communication elements as part of Country A’s broader and longer-term strategy to influence attitudes and behaviour, such as seeking changes in Country B’s policy, perspective, or legislation that are favourable to the interests of Country A. In the case of Russia’s key foreign policy interests, Moscow threatened retaliation through its key media platforms (RT and Sputnik) and through its embassy social-media accounts when Canada’s House of Commons unanimously passed the Magnitsky bill in October 2017.18

The base of the pyramid is the longer-term relationship and awareness-building, which is less ‘strategic’ and ‘tactical’ in the sense that it is not driven by specific policy imperatives. In this article’s context, the function of Russia’s Russkiy Mir, a foundation established by President Putin in 2007 to promote Russian culture and language, is to create a favourable impression among international audiences of Russia’s heritage and of Russia as a nation. Inspired by the British Council and Germany’s Goethe Institut, Russkiy Mir represents a ‘soft’ instrument to amplify Russia’s soft power globally and, arguably, to try to blunt accusations that Russia is using its international communication capacity predominantly in an aggressive way to ‘interfere’ in other countries.

International broadcasting bridges all elements of the public diplomacy pyramid, since it communicates official government positions both directly and indirectly, offers advocacy opportunities through commentary shows, and provides information programming (in-house or independently produced documentaries) that examine the history and socio-economic fabric of the broadcaster’s country or the countries/societies that the broadcaster is targeting. Historically, it has been difficult to associate international broadcasting with ‘listening’, but the advent of social media platforms attached to the likes of RT, Voice of America or France 24 has meant that there is more of a feedback loop to this instrument of public diplomacy. RT, for its part, promotes itself as the most watched news network on YouTube and sees its comparative advantage in using YouTube as a means to communicate directly with foreign audiences to promote an alternative perspective (from the one that prevails in Western media and Western public diplomacy platforms) on both the West’s and Russia’s foreign policy goals.19

A nation’s public diplomacy cannot be seen in isolation from how information is exercised as state power in world politics. A more complete conceptualisation of how nation-states wield, calibrate and exercise their different communication instruments/platforms must include how the official and unofficial elements of a nation’s global information ecosystem co-exist. Russia, for example, has used unofficial platforms ranging from the infamous Internet Research Agency, bot farms, online trolls and Kremlin-leaning online media outlets such as Global Research, Consortium News and Russia Insider to advance narratives that are generally anti-NATO, anti-EU and, if not pro-Kremlin, then certainly sympathetic to the Kremlin’s official positions.20 As has been well-documented, global social media platforms such as Facebook provide further means of amplifying Russia’s key government messages in Western societies, both overtly and covertly. Yet Russia has more than 200 other social media platforms to choose from in designing its influence campaigns.21 This allows for what Martin Kragh and Sebastian Åsberg call the ‘blurring of boundaries between public diplomacy and active measures’, since these social media platforms can all be used for covert campaigns.22

Although the public diplomacy pyramid was conceived as a means of conceptualising Western public diplomacy, it has a more universal application and can encompass the multiple lanes of a state’s international communication efforts to include both the direct and indirect channels/platforms.23 For this reason, this article adopts a more accommodative approach to theorising public diplomacy, in order to take into account Russia’s use of non-official platforms in its global information ecology.

Russia’s Integrated Information Power: A Whole-of-Russia Approach

Western analysts have been both alarmed and confounded by how seamless and integrated the exercise of Russia’s global information power has become, particularly in Europe and most notably in Ukraine and the Baltic states. Dedicated counter-propaganda centres such as the European Union’s East StratCom Task Force have been operational only since 2015; trying to counter Russian ‘propaganda’ has been likened to playing whack-a-mole. Part of the problem may be that the West and Russia are playing two different geopolitical games with respect to the use of information and communication resources in Realpolitik. As Edward Lucas and Ben Nimmo observe, an understanding of information warfare is central to Russia’s understanding of modern geopolitics.24 There is a very direct historical line between, on the one hand, the Soviet Union’s use of so-called ‘agitprop’ (agitation and propaganda) to undermine Western democracies and promote pro-Soviet global movements, and, on the other hand, the refinement of Russian sharp power over the last decade. Although the global communications environment has dramatically changed since the Cold War period, the Russian playbook is largely unchanged. The current iteration of Russia’s ‘active measures’, which include online trolls to sow confusion and disinformation, and to have half-truths and lies amplified by Russia’s international broadcasting outlets, comes at a propitious time for the Kremlin: Western liberal democracies are struggling to support a robust public sphere in the face of political polarisation, media ‘echo chambers’, allegations of ‘fake news’ and contentions that we live in a ‘post-truth’ world. While Western governments can countenance smart power as a sophisticated way of managing foreign policy interests, the Russian style of weaponising information in its international relations is seen as fundamentally antithetical to Western norms and values.

As Max Bergmann and Carolyn Kenney state in their 2017 seminal report on how Russia weaponises information:

Russian information operations are integrated, whole-of-Kremlin efforts that use Russia’s immense intelligence and espionage capabilities, criminal networks of cyberhackers, official Russian media networks and social media users or trolls paid by Kremlin-linked oligarchs [author’s emphasis].25

They go on to write that

Russia uses disinformation in sophisticated and complex information operations that use multiple and mutually reinforcing lines of effort — through cyberhacking, the employment of cyber trolls, and overt propaganda outlets.26

Russia’s operations in the Baltics show, cultural diplomacy — a component of public diplomacy — directed at Russian minority populations is effective in framing Russian narratives as part of this whole-of-Kremlin approach. Yet perhaps more significantly, in the words of Keir Giles, James Sherr and Anthony Seaboyer: ‘In Russian/Soviet military science, war and peace are seen neither as absolutes nor as completely antithetical. Cooperation, partnerships, even alliances unfold within a framework of “struggle”’.27 This means that there are no fixed boundaries in Russia’s approach to managing its global information ecology (including public diplomacy) to achieve its balance-of-power objectives vis-à-vis the West.

For Bergmann, Kenney, Nimmo and other close observers, Russian campaigns tactically blend covert, semi-covert and overt information actions in an effort to confuse and distract target audiences and have them mistrust all information. The Institute of Modern Russia explains that Russia’s global information strategy combines:

Soviet-era ‘whataboutism’ and Chekist ‘active measures’ with a wised-up, postmodern smirk that says that everything is a sham. Where the Soviets once co-opted and repurposed concepts such as ‘democracy,’ ‘human rights’ and ‘sovereignty’ to mask their opposites, the Putinists use them playfully to suggest that not even the West really believes in them. Gitmo, Iraq, Ferguson, BP, Jobbik, Schröder — all liberalism is cant and anyone can be bought.28

The leitmotif of Russia’s approach to its international communication is that truth is essentially malleable. For the reasons elucidated above, a discussion of official Kremlin news sites (RT and Sputnik) and Kremlin-leaning unofficial sites such as Global Research and Consortium News in Russian public diplomacy and influence operations in Canada must begin with the premise that Russia does not practise public diplomacy as it is understood in Western foreign ministries. Rather, it practises information warfare using all resources — strategic communication, cultural diplomacy, advocacy, covert action — at its disposal.

The Instruments of Russia’s Public Diplomacy and Perception Management

Russia’s public diplomacy is anchored by its diplomatic missions and official Kremlin news and cultural sites — RT, Sputnik and Russkiy Mir — and supplemented by an array of Kremlin-leaning unofficial media outlets.29 RT and Sputnik represent an important element of Russia’s smart power and, selectively, according to a multiplicity of reports, its sharp power.

First launched in 2005 as Russia Today and rebranded in 2008 as RT, Russia’s international voice has been dogged by controversy almost from the time it started. RT has twice been the target of the British broadcast regulator Ofcom, which cited it for explicit bias in its journalism in 2015 and again in 2019.30 In 2017, RT was informed by the US Justice Department that it had to register under the Foreign Agent Registration Act (1938).31 RT did so under protest and its news reporting must now have a caption that indicates that it is being funded by the Russian government.

These sanctions and an overall perception of biased content have led commentators to describe RT as the Kremlin’s ‘propaganda arm’, ‘information launderer’ and the ‘tip of the iceberg of Russia’s disinformation system’. According to Bergmann and Kenney, RT provides a ‘veneer of credibility’ by publishing or broadcasting the ‘legitimate’ news of the day, making it difficult for viewers ‘to weed out stories that are either completely fabricated or pure propaganda’.32 According to Bergmann and Kenney, RT takes ‘fake information’ that often originates online and gives it credibility by reproducing it on its platforms and then ‘launders’ this information by reinjecting it into social media, where this information, now masquerading as legitimate news (conspiracy theories are always a favourite), can be picked up by social media where it can be further promoted by Kremlin-affiliated/sympathetic individuals and research organisations, alternative news sites, troll farms and bots. For its part, RT rejects these claims and insists that its legitimate purpose is to offer a competing narrative: ‘question the long-held, often unfounded, assumptions and clichés that often underline the reporting of news [… and] to acquaint international audiences with a Russian perspective on major global events’.33

Canada’s broadcast regulator, the Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC), authorised distribution of RT in 2009. By this time, RT had already established itself in the United Kingdom and Germany, and it was available to millions of Americans through their cable providers. It can be speculated that the presence of RT in Canada has not become a political lightning rod because RT’s television programming in North America is directed at an American audience. In keeping with its stated goal of providing an ‘alternative’ or competing perspective on the news, RT has hired both left-wing and right-wing American commentators.34

Similar accusations of bias have been levelled at Sputnik. Launched in 2014 and headquartered in Moscow, with regional offices around the world, Sputnik functions as a news agency, news website platform and radio broadcast service. Although its audience is considerably smaller than RT’s, it too has been accused of disseminating propaganda to Western audiences.35 In their study of Russian influence campaigns in Sweden, Kragh and Åsberg cite Sputnik as one of the tools that Russia uses to ‘spread confusion and encourage disunity’.36

Russia’s global influence operations are also aided by a number of so-called alternative and conspiracy-theory websites that lean towards Russia’s preferred narratives. Global Research (, for instance, regularly publishes articles supporting Kremlin positions alongside pieces supporting global conspiracy theories. The site is run by Michel Chossudovsky, a retired University of Ottawa professor, who regularly contributes to Russian nationalist sites and has frequently appeared on RT and Sputnik.37 In an article on Russia’s influence operations in Canada, Justin Ling, a Canadian journalist who worked for Vice Canada, aptly describes the unofficial elements of Russia’s global information ecosystem:

Chossudovsky’s site has garnered enough profile, reported the Globe and Mail in 2017, to face scrutiny from NATO’s StratCom. The research centre concluded that, by partnering with other websites, the conspiracy site could raise the Google rankings of its stories and ‘create the illusion of multisource verification’. Along with Consortium News, Chossudovsky’s site links to the Strategic Culture Foundation, a site — registered in Moscow and designed to look like a think tank — rife with conspiracy theories. All three sites frequently cross-post one another’s articles or cite them approvingly as authentic journalism.38

As we will see in the following section, this network of official and alternative media sources, in combination with mainstream media reporting, was put to use in Canada in an attempt to create ‘the illusion of multisource verification’ for stories supporting Russian geopolitical interests.

Russian Perception Management Operations in Canada

The Case of Krakivski Visti

Although there is significant scholarly literature and think-tank and media reporting on how Russia has executed its information-war doctrine, there is little literature on Canada as a target nation. This may have changed with the appointment of Chrystia Freeland as Canadian foreign minister in January 2017. She was a target for Russia’s highly integrated approach in its global information operations: she was of Ukrainian heritage, an ardent supporter of Ukraine’s independence, a critic of Russia’s meddling in the eastern region of Ukraine and an outspoken opponent of Russia’s acquisition of Crimea. Prior to her entry into Canadian federal politics in 2013, she was a well-known, multilingual (including Russian and Ukrainian) journalist and author who had lived and worked in Moscow, and who had interviewed Vladimir Putin in 2000.39 This public profile in the eyes of the Kremlin gained her the unique distinction of being the only Canadian foreign minister ever to be considered persona non grata in Russia. She was barred from entering Russia in 2014 as part of Moscow’s retaliation against Canadian sanctions following Russia’s incursions into Ukraine.

In 2016-2017, a key Russian foreign policy priority in its relations with Canada was to register Russian displeasure at the impending passage of the Magnitsky Act, which was intended to impose sanctions on any foreign officials engaged in corruption, but was perceived to be directed at Russian officials. It was no secret that the Russian president disliked the Magnitsky Act and, with Freeland as Canada’s foreign minister, the passage of the Magnitsky Act gained new urgency in Canada. As Bill Browder, a long-time nemesis of Putin, stated: ‘Repealing the Magnitsky Act was his [Putin’s] single most important foreign policy priority’.40 At around the same time, Putin had signed national security strategy into law (31 December 2015), identifying Western information warfare against Russians as one of Russia’s main security threats.41 This is the geopolitical context that apparently precipitated Russia’s campaign to discredit Canada’s new foreign minister.

The exact trajectory of Russia’s influence campaign from January-March 2017 may never be precisely denoted, but a fairly accurate timeline can be discerned from public sources and the reporting of Canadian journalists, who themselves became part of the story. According to Justin Ling, the day after Freeland was sworn in as foreign minister on 10 January 2017, Ling received a message from Kirill Kalinin, press secretary for the Russian Federation’s Embassy in Ottawa, on the embassy’s official Twitter account. Kalinin suggested that Ling look online at a collection of research on a Second World War-era Ukrainian newspaper called Krakivski Visti (Krakow News) that had been published in Krakow, in Nazi-occupied Poland.42 This suggests that Russia likely had foreknowledge of Freeland’s family history and was not necessarily leaking information; rather, Russia was trying to amplify and frame information that was already in the public domain — albeit not in mainstream media. Ling declined the story because, in his view, this was an obvious attempt to tar the new foreign minister by association. As Ling observes:

After I passed on the story, details from it began popping up across the internet. Notably, on the Centre for Research on Globalization, Consortium News, and the Strategic Culture Foundation, as well as on an array of blogs, other websites, and social-media accounts. Some of those voices were willing tools of the Russian state, but others were merely downstream recipients of its narratives.43

The movement of the story of Freeland’s family history from the outer edges of Russia’s public diplomacy system to the ‘downstream recipients’ — ultimately to mainstream Canadian and international media — via the obvious cross-publication of the same few authors in these Kremlin-friendly alternative media websites to create the illusion of multi-source verification, plus ‘nudging’ by Russia’s Embassy in Ottawa, is the core of how, in this case, Russia sought to influence domestic Canadian and international public opinion.44

Canadian journalist and defence and security expert David Pugliese suggests that the root of the story may have been a Polish history magazine, Polska Bez Cenzury, which in January 2017 had referred to Michael Chomiak, Krakivski Visti’s Editor-in-Chief, who happened to be Freeland’s grandfather.45 Krakivski Visti had a record of publishing anti-Semitic articles under direction from Nazi authorities. The Polish article was about the history of what it considered a collaborationist newspaper and not specifically about Freeland’s grandfather. It briefly mentioned that Freeland was a Canadian politician. In fact, Chomiak’s wartime role was technically already public knowledge, since it had been the subject of two scholarly articles in the late 1990s written by Freeland’s uncle, John-Paul Himka; and Chomiak’s personal papers on this period of his life are also available at the Provincial Archives of Alberta.46 In addition, copies of Krakivski Visti can be found in the archives at the Los Angeles Holocaust Museum, among other locations.47

After publication in the Polish magazine, related information appeared on pro-Russian blogs and news sites, focusing on the connection with Canada’s foreign minister and, thereafter, the Russian Embassy sought to interest Canadian media in reporting on this connection. Shortly after Freeland’s appointment as foreign minister, John Helmer, a Moscow-based frequent contributor to the Global Research website, posted an article on 17 January 2017 titled ‘Victim or Aggressor — Chrystia Freeland’s Family Record for Nazi War Profiteering and the Murder of the Cracow Jews’.48 Helmer’s piece was posted on, a website whose self-appointed role is to provide a counter-narrative to ‘Western aggression’ against countries such as China and Russia, and it also appeared in another Kremlin-friendly website, Russia Insider.49 Marcus Kolga, in a later testimony to a Canadian parliamentary committee, noted that this article was based on information uncovered by Helmer’s Polish collaborator, Stanislaw Balcerec, who, Kolga reported, also wrote for Russia Insider.50 Kolga, referencing an article by Canadian journalist Terry Glavin, said that the frame of reference for Helmer’s piece was to ‘(mis)characterize Freeland’ as trying to, as Glavin writes, ‘draw Canada into a showdown with Russia because of the seething hatreds she inherited from her Ukrainian grandfather’.51 The purpose, it seemed, was to undermine the new foreign minister’s credibility by associating her with a relative who could be characterised as a Nazi collaborator, if not a Nazi himself.

The campaign then appeared to move forward when Consortium News, an alternative online news outlet founded by an American journalist, published an attention-grabbing article on 27 February 2017 with the headline ‘A Nazi Skeleton in the Family Closet’ about Freeland’s grandfather’s activities at the newspaper.52 The piece does not feel salacious and appears to conform to Western journalistic standards of objective news reporting — just the facts. Yet it is how it frames the facts and what it highlights that is of significance: that Freeland’s grandfather lived in an apartment in Krakow that was formerly occupied by Jews; that her grandfather apparently ‘rejoiced over Nazi military victories’; that the 6 November 1941 edition of the newspaper ‘ecstatically describes’ how much better off Kiev is without the Jews; and that Freeland had omitted her grandfather’s Nazi affiliation in her own biography and therefore had misled the Canadian public. The Russian Embassy’s attempt to embarrass Canada’s foreign minister is evident by its attempt to encourage mainstream Canadian media to consult these Kremlin-friendly online sources. It is noteworthy that the European Union’s East StratCom Task Force, which monitors and catalogues disinformation through its Disinformation Digest, had logged the Freeland story on 26 January 2017 under the headline ‘And You Are a Nazi Too!’ The cases listed on the Disinformation Digest indicate that the original story had migrated to Russia Insider and

The story appeared to be relegated to the blogosphere until Robert Fife, the Globe and Mail’s Ottawa Bureau Chief, asked Foreign Minister Freeland at a press conference about the claims that pro-Russian websites were making about her grandfather. The story then broke into the mainstream media with a front-page publication by The Globe and Mail on 7 March 2017 under the heading ‘Freeland Knew Her Grandfather was Editor of Nazi Newspaper’.54 Considered a legitimate story, other Canadian national media picked up the trail and news of Freeland’s family history was reported internationally, notably two days later in the Washington Post, which appeared to take the essential facts from The Globe and Mail article.55 The story had been ‘legitimated’ or ‘laundered’ as soon as it crossed the threshold from obscure Kremlin-friendly media outlets to mainstream media. Celebrated contrarian journalist Glen Greenwald, who is featured on PBS News, is reported by Terry Glavin to have stated: ‘Canada’s foreign minister knowingly lied about her grandfather for 20 years, now blames Russia’.

Russia’s main state-sponsored platforms, RT and Sputnik News, picked up the essential Russian narrative themes regarding the link to Canada’s policy on Ukraine.56 As noted above, RT had a potential audience of some six million Canadians — if they bothered to watch RT on the upper reaches of their cable television package. However, the real audience was global, and the Russian strategic communication tactic — whether by careful design or by taking advantage of circumstances — seemed to be to gain a foothold in the mainstream Canadian media in the hopes that the story would then be picked up by wire services and key international media outlets (such as the New York Times, Washington Post and BBC, etc.). It would be much better for RT and Sputnik to rebroadcast a story that had already become legitimate in mainstream Western independent media. This was an opportunity to undercut Canada’s international image and to delegitimate Canada’s (and by extension the West’s) posture in supporting the independence of Ukraine and its territorial integrity. When asked for comment, the Russian Embassy in Ottawa stated somewhat insouciantly: ‘We cannot deny or confirm particular news stories. Nazism and its hateful ideology, the Nazi collaborators and followers should be unequivocally condemned. This is to be spoken out openly and unambiguously’.57

Was there some tacit coordination between Russia’s official public diplomacy communication channels and the array of unofficial Kremlin-leaning media outlets — what could be termed Russia’s ‘third party’ validation agents? Certainly, the Russian Embassy in Ottawa was keen to push the ‘Nazi-in-the-family-closet’ narrative forward by seeking to gain traction in the mainstream media and therefore to affect public opinion in their host country — Canada — and then globally. Terry Glavin’s analysis of how Russia sought to set the Canadian media agenda offers a pithy summary judgement on Russia’s approach to perception management. Glavin writes:

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.58

Glavin further suggests that it was no coincidence that the Russian campaign started at the time when Canada was deciding on whether to extend its military training mission to Ukraine. With respect to the mainstream media assessment of the story about Freeland’s family history, David Pugliese’s reporting offers an alternative if not entirely convincing framing of the story. He indicates that because the essential facts of Michael Chomiak’s role as Editor-in-Chief are not in dispute, then the reporting — presumably by elements of the Kremlin-friendly blogosphere and official Kremlin media platforms — can, by definition, not be considered disinformation.59 However, how the facts are framed and decontextualised can create misleading impressions or can in fact have, as a primary goal, to create doubt in an adversary’s intent and motivations — a classic, textbook tactic of disinformation.

Foreign Minister Freeland characterised the reporting of her grandfather’s history as another example of Russia’s smear campaign and pointed to the dangers of such information operations for the integrity of Western democracy.60 In 2018, the Russian diplomat who had tried to interest Vice News in the story about Freeland’s grandfather was expelled along with three other Russian diplomats in Canada as part of the West’s retaliation for the alleged Kremlin-sanctioned poisoning of the Skripals in the UK.61 Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau linked Russia’s online campaign against his foreign minister to the expulsion of Russian diplomats, when he stated to reporters: ‘I think we can all remember the efforts by Russian propagandists to discredit our Minister of Foreign Affairs, through social media and sharing stories about her. There are multiple ways in which Russia uses cyber, social media and propaganda to sway public opinion, to try and push a pro-Russian narrative’.62


A number of tentative conclusions can be drawn from this article’s attempt to reconcile normative assumptions in Western and Russian approaches to public diplomacy.

First, the contention is that Russia’s approach to perception management conforms to the idea of strategic communication being a core part of any nation’s public diplomacy.

Second, Russia’s approach supports a more accommodative conceptualisation of public diplomacy, one that sees the boundaries of this concept extended to incorporate key non-state actors that form an important part of a nation’s global information ecology.

Third, in contrast with some of the findings of other recent literature on Russia’s public diplomacy towards Western countries (notably Kragh and Åsberg’s analysis of Russia’s influence operations in Sweden), the Canadian case appears to show that Russia may be moving away from outright information manipulation (for example, using sharp practices such as forgeries), to a greater emphasis on global narrative competition, which is a key element of strategic communication.

Fourth, the case shows the central role played by the Russian Embassy in Ottawa in amplifying key messages. In the case of Krakivski Visti, the Nazi connection was first brought to the public’s attention through the Kremlin’s unofficial network and then amplified by the Russian Embassy in Ottawa, in an attempt to gain an agenda-setting foothold in the mainstream media. From a Russian information-war doctrinal standpoint, the intent was to have a psychological impact on the target society — in this case, Canada — and potentially weaken Canada’s resolve to move forward with policies that the Kremlin perceived to be anti-Russian. Certainly, there was an element of the use of sharp power here by Russia, since the invocation of a Nazi connection was designed to confuse and distract the Canadian media and public. It also demonstrated the Russian penchant for decontextualisation — using factual information to drive wedges in societies and decrease trust in institutions.

By any measure, the main game of Russia’s information war against the West is not located in Canada. However, given Chrystia Freeland’s personal history and earlier experience of living as a journalist in Russia, her central role in policy-making towards Russia and her leadership in supporting Ukraine in the face of Russian aggression, it is not surprising that Russia turned its attention to Canada. While it is hard to imagine that there will be any long-term consequences from these efforts, it is clear that Russia injected a meta-narrative into Canadian public discourse — ‘Nazi-skeleton-in-the-closet’ — that captured some media attention, although it appeared that this Russian narrative had no impact on Canadian policy and a very limited impact on Canadian public opinion.

After over a decade of existence, are Russia’s official broadcasting platforms and the associated unofficial alternative media outlets and blogs within its global information ecosystem having measurable ‘political effects’? Certainly, on one level, the objective is to paralyse target countries through the use of sharp power. On a second level, the only way that Russia’s public diplomacy and influence operations can have any agenda-setting influence is if they can frame national debates in target countries (that is, perception management) with a view to achieving policy outcomes that support Russia’s interests. Tracing such influence by overt state-financed media outlets such as RT and Sputnik is difficult in the multi-level and ‘multi-species’ ecology of Russian information warfare. That said, information-war analysts and the recent state-financed counter-propaganda organizations in the West such as the G7-initiated Rapid Response Mechanism, the European Union’s East StratCom Task Force and NATO’s Strategic Communications Centre of Excellence in Latvia have been very public in connecting the dots and exposing some of the more blatant manipulations of public opinion perpetrated by official and unofficial media organs of Russia’s global information ecosystem. More fundamentally, RT is just the very visible tip of the iceberg of an ever-shifting and adaptable Russian system to influence global public opinion.

In the end, it appears that Russia is preparing itself for a long information war with the West based on developing competing narratives. This war will not be fought in the trenches of cultural diplomacy.

Evan H. Potter

is Associate Professor of Communications in the Department of Communications at the University of Ottawa, Ottawa, Canada. He has a BA in Political Studies from Queen’s University in Kingston, an MA in International Affairs from Carleton University, and a PhD in International Relations from the London School of Economics. He is the author of Branding Canada: Projecting Canada’s Soft Power through Public Diplomacy (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2009). He was a Fulbright Visiting Professor at the Center on Public Diplomacy at the University of Southern California, and is a founding editor of the Canadian Foreign Policy Journal.


The responsibility for the views expressed in this article are those of the author, and do not reflect the view of Global Affairs Canada.


William Blake, ‘Auguries of Innocence’ (1803, approximately).


See, for example, Daniel Fried and Alina Polyakova, ‘Democratic Defense against Disinformation’, Atlantic Council Eurasia Center (February 2018), available at


While the United States, the United Kingdom and other Western countries have made ‘preventing violent extremism’ a central pillar of their respective twenty-first century public diplomacy strategies to counter the extremist narratives of Islamist organizations such as the (self-proclaimed) Islamic State, they have been slower in responding to Russia’s global information doctrine and practice. In recognition of the success Russia was having in influencing public opinion in Central/Eastern Europe and the Baltic states through its public diplomacy, the NATO Strategic Communication Centre of Excellence was established in 2014. It listed ten main activities in 2017, including ‘the study of Russian information campaigns in Nordic–Baltic countries’ and ‘Research and interpretation of WWII-related events in Russia’s narratives, actions and politics’. A review of the publicly accessible research papers on its website (2015-2017) demonstrates that almost all the analysis is focused on Russia.


The Group of Seven in 2018 announced the creation of a Rapid Response Mechanism to monitor threats to democracy; see


Justin Ling, ‘Could the Russians Decide Canada’s Next Prime Minister?’, The Walrus (21 November 2018), available at


Susan Krashinsky Robertson, ‘Canadian TV Providers Being Paid to Carry Russian “Propaganda Machine”’, The Globe and Mail (21 December 2017), available at


Kadir Jun Ayhan, ‘The Boundaries of Public Diplomacy and Nonstate Actors: A Taxonomy of Perspectives’, International Studies Perspectives, vol. 20, no. 1 (February 2019), pp. 63-83.


Christopher Walker and Jessica Ludwig, ‘The Meaning of Sharp Power: How Authoritarian States Project influence’, Foreign Affairs (November 2017); see also Christopher Walker and Jessica Ludwig, ‘From “Soft Power” to “Sharp Power”: Rising Authoritarian Influence in the Democratic World’, (Washington, DC: National Endowment for Democracy, December 2017), available at


Philip M. Taylor, ‘Strategic Communications or Democratic Propaganda’, Journalism Studies, vol. 3, no. 3 (2002), p. 437.


For an excellent overview of hybrid warfare and, particularly, its use of information operations, see testimony by Christopher S. Chivvis before the Committee on Armed Services, United States House of Representatives, on 22 March 2017, in ‘Understanding Russian “Hybrid Warfare” and What Can be Done About It’ (Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation: 2017), available at


Joseph S. Nye, Jr. Soft Power: The Means to Success in World Politics (New York, NY: PublicAffairs, 2005).


See Ayhan’s discussion of Accommodative Perspectives in Ayhan, ‘The Boundaries of Public Diplomacy and Nonstate Actors’.


Caitlin Schindler, ‘Proactively Preserving the Inward Quiet: Public Diplomacy and NATO’, Defence Strategic Communications (Riga: NATO STRATCOM Centre of Excellence, 2016), p. 135, available at


PO (2009)0141, NATO Strategic Communication Policy (29 September 2009), pp. 1-2.


Schindler, ‘Proactively Preserving the Inward Quiet’, pp. 137 and 139.


Nicholas J. Cull, ‘The Long Road to Public Diplomacy 2.0: The Internet in US Public Diplomacy’, International Studies Review, vol. 15, no. 1 (2015), p. 125.


‘As Canada’s Magnitsky Bill Nears Final Vote, Russia Threatens Retaliation’, Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (4 October 2017), available online at


Robert W. Orttung and Elizabeth Nelson, ‘Russia Today’s Strategy and Effectiveness on YouTube’, Post-Soviet Affairs, vol. 35, no. 2 (2019), pp. 77-92. As an example of how RT uses YouTube as part of Russia’s public diplomacy strategy to frame foreign policy issues such as the Magnitsky Act, see RT report, ‘Moscow Strikes Back after US List of Sanctioned Russians Published’ (14 April 2013), available at


On Russia’s use of public diplomacy platforms for its influence operations, see Martin Kragh and Sebastian Åsberg, ‘Russia’s Strategy for Influence through Public Diplomacy and Active Measures: The Swedish Case’, The Journal of Strategic Studies, vol. 40, no. 6 (2017), p. 774.


For a list of social media sites and their accompanying utility for Russian influence campaigns, see Keir Giles, James Sherr and Anthony Seaboyer, Russian Reflexive Control, a contract research paper prepared for Defence Research and Development Canada (October 2018), p. 30, available at


Kragh and Åsberg, ‘Russia’s Strategy for Influence through Public Diplomacy and Active Measures’, p. 774.


Evan H. Potter, Branding Canada: Projecting Canada’s Soft Power through Public Diplomacy (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2009), p. 44.


Edward Lucas and Ben Nimmo, ‘Information Warfare: What is It and How to Win It?’, CEPA Infowar Paper no. 1, (November 2015), p. 2.


Max Bergmann and Carolyn Kenney, ‘War by Other Means: Russian Active Measures and the Weaponization of Information’, Center for American Progress (June 2017), available at


Bergmann and Kenney, ‘War by Other Means’.


Giles, Sherr and Seaboyer, Russian Reflexive Control, pp. 8-9.


As quoted in Bergmann and Kenney, ‘War by Other Means’; originally in Peter Pomerantsev and Michael Weiss, ‘The Menace of Unreality: How the Kremlin Weaponizes Information, Culture and Money’, special project presented by The Interpreter (New York, NY: Institute of Modern Russia, 2014), p. 5.


Kragh and Åsberg contend that Russia’s hierarchical decision-making structures and tightly regulated media system have ‘predisposed’ Russia’s public diplomacy to convey the Kremlin’s preferred narrative; see Kragh and Åsberg, ‘Russia’s Strategy for Influence through Public Diplomacy and Active Measures’, p. 777 and footnote 12.


See Jasper Jackson, ‘RT Sanctioned by Ofcom over Series of Misleading and Biased Articles’, The Guardian (21 September 2015), available at; and Jim Waterson, ‘RT Fined £200,000 for Breaching Impartiality Rules’, The Guardian (26 July 2019), available at


See Nathan Lane, ‘US-Based Russian News Outlet Registers as Foreign Agent’, Reuters (17 February 2018), available at


Bergmann and Kenney, ‘War by Other Means’.


See Ofcom, Broadcast and On Demand Bulletin, no. 369 (20 December 2018), p. 8,


Canadian content has to be searched for on its website (, and tends to highlight oddball stories (for example, Saudi Arabia apparently providing funding for Canadian Islamic schools) and anything that relates to Canadian sanctions against Russia, such as a piece titled ‘Canada Passes US-Style Sanctions Bill Targeting “Corrupt” Russian Officials’ (18 October 2017). The story, while factual, gives significant room for comment to Russian officials. Unlike its American and British counterparts, the CRTC is not interested in applying a ‘propaganda test’ to RT, preferring to let it compete for viewers in the marketplace of ideas and information.


See, for example, the discussion of RT in Kragh and Åsberg, ‘Russia’s Strategy for Influence through Public Diplomacy and Active Measures’; and in Christopher Paul and Miriam Matthews, ‘The Russian “Firehose of Falsehood” Propaganda Model’ (Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 2016), available online at


Kragh and Åsberg, ‘Russia’s Strategy for Influence through Public Diplomacy and Active Measures’, p. 788.


For a detailed description of Russia’s information ecosystem in Canada, including Kremlin-leaning ‘alternative media’ and diagram of a Russian information campaign (Fig. 1), see Marcus Kolga, Stemming the Virus: Understanding and Responding to the Threat of Russian Disinformation (Ottawa, ON: Macdonald-Laurier Institute, 2019), pp. 16-22, available at


Ling, ‘Could the Russians Decide Canada’s Next Prime Minister?’.


For a comprehensive profile, see Adam Radwanski, ‘Meet Chrystia Freeland, the Woman Defining Canada’s Foreign Role’, The Globe and Mail (12 August 2017), available at


As quoted in Ling, ‘Could the Russians Decide Canada’s Next Prime Minister?’.


Olga Oliker, ‘Unpacking Russia’s New National Security Strategy’, Commentary (Washington, DC: Center for Strategic and International Studies, 7 January 2016), available at


Ling, ‘Could the Russians Decide Canada’s Next Prime Minister?’.


Ling, ‘Could the Russians Decide Canada’s Next Prime Minister?’.


On the theory of ‘nudge propaganda’, see Andrew Wilson, ‘Four Types of Russian Propaganda’, Aspen Review, vol. 4 (2015), pp. 77-81.


Author’s personal communication with David Pugliese, 11 August 2019. See also the transcript of Pugliese’s interview with CBC Radio on 13 March 2017:


See John-Paul Himka, ‘Krakivski Visti and the Jews, 1943’, Journal of Ukrainian Studies (1996), pp. 81-95; and John-Paul Himka, ‘“Krakivski Visti”: An Overview’, Harvard Ukrainian Studies, vol. 22 (1998), pp. 251-261.


Digital copies of the Krakivski Visti can be found online, included under the category of ‘Ukrainian Collaborationist Newspapers’:


Testimony by Marcus Kolga, House of Commons, Canada (4 October 2018), available online at


Terry Glavin, ‘How Russia’s Attack on Freeland Got Traction in Canada’, Maclean’s (14 March 2017), available at


Robert Fife, ‘Freeland Knew her Grandfather was Editor of Nazi Newspaper’, The Globe and Mail (7 March 2017), available at


Alan Freeman, ‘“Russia Should Stop Calling my Grandfather a Nazi”, Says Canada’s Foreign Minister’, The Washington Post (9 March 2017), available at


‘Ex-Trudeau Advisor: Russia’s “Isolation” Portrayed by US Media is Fantasy’, Sputnik News (6 July 2017), available at Of note, this article embeds a link to an article by Canadian journalist David Pugliese, who reviews the facts and concludes that the reporting about the foreign minister’s grandfather was largely accurate.


Embassy of the Russian Federation in Canada, ‘Written Answers to Media Questions from Washington Post Reporter Questions (March 7 2017)’, available at


Glavin, ‘How Russia’s Attack on Freeland Got Traction in Canada’.


David Pugliese, ‘Chrystia Freeland’s Granddad Was Indeed a Nazi Collaborator — So Much for Russian Disinformation’, Ottawa Citizen (7 March 2017), available at


Robert Fife, ‘Freeland Warns Canadians to Be Aware of Russian Disinformation’, The Globe and Mail (6 March 2017), available at


Grant Robertson, ‘Embassy Games: Inside Canada’s Diplomatic Standoff with Russia’, The Globe and Mail (30 December 2018), available at See also Global Affairs Canada, ‘Canada Expels Russian Diplomats in Solidarity with the United Kingdom’, Statement (26 March 2018), available at


Steven Chase, ‘Trudeau Links Russian Diplomats’ Ouster with Smear Campaign Aimed at Freeland,’ The Globe and Mail (4 April 2018), available at

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