Russia has been spreading false claims that Ukraine has been harvesting the organs of fallen soldiers and children as Moscow tries to build support for its invasion, according to a rare public warning from Canada’s foreign signals intelligence agency.
The Communications Security Establishment (CSE) also said it’s aware of Russian efforts to promote fake anti-Canadian stories.
Following on actions taken by British and American intelligence services, the CSE tweeted Friday its observations on intelligence gleaned from what it calls Russian-backed disinformation campaigns — a well-known tactic of President Vladimir Putin’s regime.
The agency said there’s been a co-ordinated effort by Russia to create and spread false reports that Ukraine has been harvesting the organs of fallen soldiers, women and children, and using mobile cremators to dispose of the evidence.
Russia also has “created and amplified fake stories and narratives falsely claiming that only military targets were being attacked, and that civilian causalities in Ukraine were lower than what confirmed, verifiable reports have shown,” said CSE.
“Equally, we’ve seen Russia’s efforts to promote stories that falsely categorize Russian protesters and citizens opposed to the invasion as supporting neo-Nazis and genocide.”
A CSE spokesperson said false stories aimed at the Canadian Armed Forces are circulating as well.
“Not surprisingly, we have seen dedicated efforts to promote fake, anti-Canadian stories, which are designed to look authentic, directed at members of the Canadian Armed Forces,” said Ryan Foreman.
He said that while CSE couldn’t speak to specifics, the agency was tracking anti-Canadian disinformation even before debunked rumours of a Canadian sniper being killed began to spread.
The former Canadian Armed Forces sniper, who goes by the nom de guerre Wali, came forward to disprove claims he had been killed after joining the defence of Ukraine.
Posts on a Russian social media site claimed the man had been killed by Russian Special Forces 20 minutes after he arrived in Mariupol, the southern port city that has been under siege by Russia.
“I’m alive, as you can see,” Wali told CBC last month. “Not a single scratch.”
‘Russian hasn’t changed its playbook’: expert
CSE — which usually informs the government of activities by foreign entities that threaten Canada or its allies — said it’s sharing some of its findings more widely now so that Canadians can guard against disinformation.
“Canada’s support to Ukraine is unwavering. The Russian invasion must stop and we will continue to work, as part of the Government of Canada’s efforts, to correct false narratives that undermine the facts,” said Foreman.
Former security analyst Stephanie Carvin, now an associate professor at Carleton University, said that despite Russia’s revered information operations capabilities, it has under-performed in the Ukraine campaign to date and is failing to pick up much traction in the West.
“I think they’ve been very poor, shockingly poor, actually,” she said.
“I think pre-bunking may have played a serious role in this. But also the fact is that it just seems like Russia hasn’t changed its playbook, whereas I think the West has.”
“Pre-bunking” refers to efforts by intelligence agencies to publicly call out disinformation campaigns or false-flag operations before they begin.
Still, Carvin warned that — as with its military operations — Russia is likely to adapt its information operations strategy.
“All of this could change down the road,” she said.
Warnings about cyberattacks
The electronic spy agency has issued multiple warnings to power companies, banks and other critical elements of Canada’s infrastructure and economy, urging them to shore up their defences against Russia-based cyber threat activity.
The agency said it has been sharing cyber threat intelligence with key partners in Ukraine and is working with the Canadian Armed Forces through intelligence sharing, cyber security and cyber operations.
Carvin said she hopes to see more transparency from Canada’s intelligence agencies.
“You can’t have an intelligence briefing like this every day, but I think a good, timely one is important to the Canadian public, and makes them aware that these campaigns exist, which may be important down the road — say, during an election,” she said.
“Just because these campaigns are out there doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re successful and everyone should lose their minds about it. It’s just [a reminder] to keep aware that these kinds of campaigns exist and that the national security community is watching.”