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Canada is Skipping Its Turn to Protect Iceland, and It’s Become Russian Propaganda

Russia and Canada have been locked in a series of public spats lately, largely sparked by Russia’s seizure of Crimea and parts of Eastern Ukraine.
Justin Ling
Montreal, CA
Photo by Maurizio Gambarini/EPA

The Canadian Air Force is passing on its promise to protect Icelandic airspace, instead leaving the job up to the Czech Republic.

That news came of specific interest to Russia's click-bait propaganda outlet.

In recent weeks, the government of Canada informed NATO that it was opting-out of a mission to guard Iceland, something that it had committed to just a few months prior. The obligation exists not because the island nation faces any immediate threat, but because it does not have its own air force.


As such, NATO countries take turns doing small-scale, short-term deployments to Keflavik, in Iceland. Generally, the deployments only involve a half-dozen planes, last just a few weeks, and only cover about half the year. It's dubbed Operation IGNITION.

When Canada informed NATO that it wouldn't be sending aircraft on the mission, the organization went to the Czechs, who quickly approved the plan and will have assets in the region for August. The last time the Czech Republic was deployed to Iceland, according to state-owned Russian daily newspaper Rossiyskaya Gazeta, the mission was extended "because of provocative actions on the part of Russian aircraft in the vicinity of Iceland."

But news of this change in plans received very little attention from media, even in the Czech Republic and Iceland. It did not even appear to get picked up by the Iceland's highest-circulation newspaper, Fréttablaðið.

Russian state media, however, took notice.

Russia's new English-language Sputnik news service picked up the story this week, running with comments from the Czech Republic's defense minister.

"Czech Planes to Guard Iceland Instead of Canada Which Is Fighting ISIL," reads the headline of the Sputnik story.

The Canadian government says that isn't quiet accurate, as it wasn't one specific mission that led to Ottawa opting-out of the commitment.

"As a member of NATO, Canada does not participate in every alliance operation. While Canada is not participating right now in Operation IGNITION, our forces are active at sea and on the ground in Eastern Europe doing our part to reassure allies and partners in the face of Russia's aggression against Ukraine," Lauren Armstrong, a spokesperson for Canadian Minister of National Defense Jason Kenney, told VICE News.


The government isn't ruling out participating in the operation in the future.

The idea that the mission in Iraq and Syria is tapping Canada's source of fighter jets isn't quite accurate, either. The Canadian Air Force has 77 CF-18 Hornets in operation — seven are deployed to the mission against the so-called Islamic State, while another six are patrolling Eastern Europe under Operation REASSURANCE, which was launched "in response to Russian aggression," according to the Canadian government.

That mission will also train Ukrainian soldiers and do reconnaissance of the front lines in Donetsk and Donbass, where the fighting between the Ukrainian forces and Russian-backed rebels has been fiercest.

"As the prime minister has said, Canada stands alongside the Ukrainian people and our NATO allies in the face of continued aggression and provocation on the part of the Putin regime," Armstrong added. "Canada will continue working with its allies to ensure a sovereign, unified and secure Ukraine."

Related: Russia Blasts Canada Over Death of Suspected Nazi War Criminal it Wanted Extradited 

That mission was just the latest in a series of spats between Russia and Canada, largely sparked by Russia's seizure of Crimea and parts of Eastern Ukraine.

Canada also slapped rounds of sanctions on Russia, which it boasts are the harshest in the world.

Russia, meanwhile, has continued its efforts to set up supposedly-autonomous republics in Eastern Ukraine, as it has done in the past with South Ossetia and Chechnya, as well as flying sorties into NATO airspace, sometimes only narrowly avoiding collisions with military and civilian planes and ships.


The fight has also become a public relations war, with Moscow contending that Canada is an imperialist state, obsessed with meddling in Asia and Eastern Europe, as a common theme for Russian propaganda.

That is where Sputnik comes in.

The flashy site comes out of the ruins of Russia's former RIA Novosti news service, which folded last year. Sputnik took the reins with a sleek design and easy-to-read stories, earning it the title of "the Buzzfeed of propaganda." It was created by decree of President Vladimir Putin in 2013.

The online-only service compliments the efforts of the RT network, which is a Western-targeted station that peddles in conspiracy theories and has long been criticized for being a Kremlin mouthpiece.

Sputnik, for its part, penned one piece parroting the Kremlin's lines, but using a Quebec columnist to do so. In another story, it generously profiled former Prime Minister Jean Chretien after his one-on-one meeting with Putin, while pulling tweets from Canadian partisans and even taking a clip from a comedy show to denigrate current Prime Minister Stephen Harper. One feature accuses Canada of kneecapping Arctic cooperation.

Between the two outlets, Putin is able to subtly push a disinformation campaign inside NATO's borders.

Follow Justin Ling on Twitter: @justin_ling

Watch the VICE News documentary, 'Silencing Dissent in Russia: Putin's Propaganda Machine.'

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