In May, Kremlin-linked media spread a hoax story reporting three Canadian soldiers were killed in war-torn Ukraine, forcing Canada’s Department of National Defence to publicly denounce the claim.
But this isn’t the first time Moscow-born disinformation campaigns — made infamous during the 2016 presidential election — targeted Canada and its missions in Ukraine and Eastern Europe.
Besides a fake-news operation in Latvia promoting pro-Russian interests as Canadian troops deployed for a NATO mission in that country, conspiratorial news sites have boldly reported on alleged Canadian casualties in Donbas, which is a contested region of eastern Ukraine.
In September 2016, StalkerZone, a pro-Kremlin site linked to Oleg Tsaryov — a separatist political leader in Donbas — published a translated story from Cont.ws, brazenly declaring: “11 CANADIAN MERCENARIES GO HOME IN BODYBAGS AFTER ‘MASTERCLASS’ IN DONBAS.” The original Russian version of the story made the rounds on numerous websites. The Canadian government has denounced the "disinformation."
It’s worth noting that separatist leaders in Donbas are alleged to be in the pockets, and propped up by, the Russian government.
The story asserts members of CANSOF — Canada’s elite special forces regiment — raided separatist positions. According to StalkerZone, this ended in a complete “disaster” for the “maple leaves” with eleven dead and the rest of the commando unit running away in fear after, “learning about the fate of their colleagues.”
The report goes so far as to claim the operation was the work of CSIS — Canada’s national spy agency — under the direction of Colonel Ron Ubbens, who was the Canadian military attache to Ukraine at the time of the alleged attack.
Ollie Richardson, the translator of the story and a frequent writer on StalkerZone, is followed by the official Twitter account of the Russian Embassy in Canada. StalkerZone is part of a known network of outlets pushing stories connected to Russian-disinformation campaigns.
On its online About page, StalkerZone says it’s “Anti-Capitalist. Anti-war. Anti-liberal” building for "our present and future children." It recently reported on the alleged alcoholism of the President of Ukraine, Petro Poroshenko and has frequently characterized the Ukrainian government as a Nazi collective — a common charge from Moscow and other Russian-disinformation sources.
Not long after StalkerZone published, Sputnik News — a Russian government controlled English-news source — quoted Donbas separatists claiming “mercenaries” from Canada and other western nations were amassing on the frontlines in eastern Ukraine.
Richardson is standing by the facts of the story.
“Based on my knowledge of the goings-on in theatres of military operations around the world, I believe that the gist of the story is correct, yes,” he said in an email. “Of course, discovering more details about the incident would require a deeper, impartial investigation.”
VICE News recently reported from the frontlines of the war in eastern Ukraine, as well as observing the Canadian training mission outside of Lvov, and never heard of any Canadian special forces presence, let alone a lethal raid gone awry.
Sources say CANSOF has never stepped foot in Ukraine.
Richardson pointed out that it is, “a fact that Canada finances and arms the Ukrainian Army, it is a fact that Canadian instructors train Ukrainian soldiers at the Yavorov training ground in Lvov…”
The Russian embassy in Canada has not responded to VICE News about this story.
For its part, the Canadian government categorically denies his facts.
“The Canadian Armed Forces have seen disinformation of this kind,” said Department of National Defence spokesperson Dan Lebouthillier, “including the one you refer to regarding CANSOFCOM members — and track it diligently in order to ensure we are in a position to accurately address them in the public space.
Inaccurate and/or exaggerated media reports are actively monitored, and when required, we will release statements to correct the record.”
Lebouthillier said the government is committed to “communicate the truth and provide the facts. We do not intend to fight propaganda with propaganda.”
Cover image: Ukrainian soldiers in action during the joint military exercise Rapid Trident 2017 on the Yavoriv shooting range near the western Ukrainian city of Lviv, Ukraine, 15 September 2017. EPA/PAVLO PALAMARCHUK