Marco Levytsky, National Affairs Editor.
Vladimir Putin’s Russia remains the greatest threat to world stability, said the keynote speaker at a Ukrainian National Federation webinar, May 28.
An emboldened Russia is “undertaking increasingly risky intelligence operations in various parts of the world with the expectation that the anticipated response will be worth the risk, and for on many occasions it was worth the risk, as the world remained silent,” said Borys Sirskyj, who served as an intelligence officer with the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) for 40 years.
“The west must understand that political murder, like intelligence collection, cyber operations and information warfare, are all levers of Russian state power and unlikely to be abandoned whatever the price. Putin’s trolls are clearly one of his most effective weapons, running social media platforms into metaphorical battlefields. In the last decade Putin has succeeded in destabilizing many parts of the world, from propping up El Assad in Syria, gaining a port for the Russian navy and providing Assad with chemical warfare agents which Assad used on his own people; with this he also weaponized the refugee stream, throwing European countries into turmoil with the ever-growing number of refugees (some 10 million) and spreading fake information throughout many of these countries; beginning a war in Eastern Ukraine; invading Crimea as well as shooting down the Malaysian Airliner over Ukraine as well as denying responsibility for same and blaming this on Ukraine; Russia’s involvement in South America; his involvement in the Canadian Arctic; the St. Volodymyr’s Cemetery issue, Nazi War Criminal issue … desecration of Stepan Bandera’s grave in Munich; the disinformation campaign against Canadian NATO troops in Latvia, and these examples could go on and on,” he stated at the webinar entitled “Information Warfare: Virtual Presentation and Q&A” and sponsored by the Ottawa-Gatineau Branch of the UNF.
Sirskyj traced back the history of Soviet/Russian espionage in Canada to the 1946 defection of Igor Gouzenko, a cypher clerk at the USSR’s Ottawa Embassy, who revealed to the West, for the first time, startling information about Soviet intelligence operations against the British, American and Canadian atomic research efforts.
“Since Soviet and now Russian tactics have not basically changed and the aggrandisement of Soviet power is being pursued by the same draconic and drastic measures today, we must heed the story of Ihor Gouzenko. This Ladies and gentlemen, in a nutshell, is what began the Cold War, and in my opinion, it never ended, for the ambitions of the Kremlin have never varied,” he stated
“Russian intelligence officers – both from the KGB and the GRU (Russian Military Intelligence) continued to employ classical tradecraft throughout the 50’s, 60’s, and 70’ focussing on Humint (or Human Intelligence collection) through the recruitment of sources worldwide, in many different countries to obtain “secrets” from western powers primarily focussing on military and political subjects. In 1980 with the advent of the personal desktop computer the manner in which the public and private sectors conducted business and provided services to the public at large changed immeasurably. Additionally, Disinformatsiya or Disinformation was a seminal weapon in the KGB’s Cold War arsenal with the goals and objectives of classic propaganda remaining largely consistent” added Sirskyj.
The collapse of the Iron Curtain and the Soviet Union in the late 80’s and early 90’s led to hopes that things could change, but that was an illusion.
“Despite the fact that in 1989 the governments of Poland, East Germany, Czechoslovakia and Romania fell with such electrifying speed that it fostered the illusion that tyranny could be replaced by democracy overnight. But history has shown that Russia and at its heart Mother Russia, is very different from its neighbours. As a society and a people, Russia is more difficult to change as it has been ruled by Czars and communist dictators for five centuries, with only brief interludes of democratic reform.
“What is more, the dictatorial brand of Soviet socialism had its roots in Russia. It was not imposed by an alien army, as the Soviet armies imposed Communist dictatorships on Eastern Europe. It was fired and hardened in the crucible of war, famine, terror, subjugation and hard sacrifice, and it had and has its committed legions. Moreover, the Russians are a people who historically have needed a belief system, an ideology to live by, whether communism or Russian Orthodoxy. Many are uneasy with a political system in which the guiding principles of public life are concerned with means, not ends. Russians look to the state and the ruler to provide an ideology and a purpose as well as law and order,” stated Sirskyj.
Since assuming office in 2000, President Vladimir Putin, a former KGB officer, has set out “to restore Russia to its old superpower status to return the glory of Russia’s imperial past.” He rules through his Presidential apparatus, his Siloviki and an array of military and security forces which report to him personally. Russia’s political stability and economic growth (largely through oil and gas revenues) have helped the country’s security and intelligence services strengthen their position.
“Putin presides over a mafia state in which power intermingles with corruption, kleptocracy and extrajudicial murder in which his agencies, the FSB, the SVR and the GRU are gainfully utilized to eliminate former intelligence operative turncoats, investigative journalists and political rivals. For example, one of his most outspoken opponents, liberal politician Boris Nemtsov was murdered in February 2015 on a Moscow bridge shot six times in the back.
Sirskyj noted Russia’s use of military grade exotic poisons, as in the deaths of Alexander Litvinenko (former SVR officer), Sergei Skripal (a former member of the GRU) and the disfigurement of former Ukrainian president Viktor Yushchenko.
Sirskyj elaborated on the concept of Information Operations (IO), which has its root in that of Information Warfare (IW), the physical and computer-based operations used by military forces to compromise the access to and viability of information received by the decision-makers of an enemy, while at the same time protecting their own information and information systems
“Within the realm of IO there is no safe haven: territorial boundaries become irrelevant as IO can be conducted at any time against the public or private sector. All other cyber activity (cybercrime, cyberterrorism, cyberwar, netspionage, hacktivism, etc. is a subset of IO,” he noted.
Sirskyj continued that there may be no better place to witness cyber conflict in action than in Ukraine today.
“Open warfare with Russia, a highly skilled, computer-literate pool of talent and a uniquely vulnerable political, economic and IT environment have made Ukraine the perfect target for those looking to test new cyber weapons. …The war in the East has given Russian hackers the opportunity to perfect their ability to launch cyber attacks with a series of major intrusions in Ukraine over the past several years.”
The objective of Russia has been the total destruction of Western democracy. In regards to Canada, Russia does not recognize Canada as a fully independent political actor, falling instead under American influence.
Moscow is also concerned about the so-called “Ukrainian lobby” and its influence on the Canadian Government and the simple strength and organization of the Ukrainian community in Canada. “This itself sticks in the throat of the Russian bear. …And that is why Russian disinformation and propaganda has been aimed at Canadian Parliamentarians of Ukrainian origin – a good example being the nasty disinformation campaign against then Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland with the direct aim of discrediting her personally and blackening of her family,” Sirskyj said.
He delved back into the dirty disinformation campaign against the Ukrainian community which with the Deschene Commission of Inquiry into the presence of alleged Nazi War Criminals in Canada. Russia first targeted veterans of the First Division of the Ukrainian National Army, earlier known as the Galician Division, spreading lies about their complicity in war crimes, only to have the Commission clear them of any war crimes, just as they had been cleared earlier by other British and Canadian investigations.
Then the Russian special services turned their attention to the Organizations of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN) and the Ukrainian Insurgent Army – the UPA – who fought both Nazi and Soviet invaders.
“Again, a strong disinformation campaign of Lies – more lies and total fabrications. However, these also took a toll on the good name of the community. Why? Because the OUN became a strong voice of opposition to Russia in Canada spreading the simple truth about the brutal murder and destruction of innocent Ukrainians in Russian concentration camps, by brutal execution, by imprisonment and exile to Siberia and other lands, by the genocide of millions of Ukrainians and especially children during the Holodomor (Death by famine) by the brutal regime of Stalin, etc. etc. But even this could not destroy the Ukrainian people and the enemy could do nothing as the spirit to survive overcame everything.
“And so, Russia continued, and continues its vile campaigns to tarnish the good Ukrainian name. Very funny way to show its love for a Brother Nation. One of the worst examples of Russian disinformation was a picture that appeared in Canadian newspapers from the Ukrainian cemetery in Oakville where the Ukrainian Division and UPA members are buried with a simple title: Ukrainian War criminals buried in Oakville. The picture itself, investigation revealed, was taken by a Russian Diplomat from Ottawa – from the Press Bureau. Again, the community took a hit. The subject was later expelled for propagating lies, disinformation and hatred,” said Sirskyj.
He noted that the Russian intent to meddle via disinformation and propaganda is enduring, but what makes the effort both potent and unprecedented is that “the medium through which disinformation and propaganda have been weaponized, that is the most substantial change which has increased the volume of information being disseminated.”