Prime Minister Justin Trudeau unveiled plans to create a special team focused on countering Russian disinformation and propaganda on Tuesday, as Ukrainians prepared to mark the six-month anniversary of Moscow’s invasion of their country.
The prime minister announced the new initiative as part of a package of new Canadian measures designed to support Ukraine and punish Russia for launching a war that has killed tens of thousands and whose impacts are being felt around the world.
Canada is also imposing sanctions against 62 more people, including those the government described as several Russian regional governors and their families, as well as a Russian company whose products include anti-drone equipment.
Ottawa is also planning to spend nearly $4 million on two projects to bolster Ukraine’s military and police services, including training to help Ukrainian police officers better handle cases involving sexual trauma as well as mental-health programs.
Trudeau revealed the package during a special meeting of leaders from countries that have been supporting Ukraine since Russian forces first crossed into the country on Feb. 24, launching Europe’s largest conflict since the Second World War.
Notionally intended to discuss Russia’s illegal annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula in 2014, the meeting also came as Ukrainians prepared to mark on Wednesday the anniversary of their country’s independence from the Soviet Union in 1991.
Appearing via videolink from Toronto alongside German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, who is in the midst of a three-day visit to Canada, Trudeau accused Russia of falsely blaming western sanctions for escalating food prices and shortages around the world.
While Russian officials have blamed the sanctions imposed in response to its invasion of Ukraine for the food crisis, Canada and its allies say Moscow is responsible for disrupting critical Ukrainian food production and exports.
“I want to repeat yet again, that there are no sanctions on food. When the Russian regime blames sanctions for the food crisis around the world, they’re engaging in disinformation,” Trudeau said.
“We need to continue fighting Russian disinformation. That’s why Canada will create a dedicated team to help increase our capacity to monitor and detect Russian and other state-sponsored disinformation.”
The prime minister did not provide further details in his short address to the meeting, whose attendees included Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, and his office referred questions to Foreign Affairs Minister Mélanie Joly’s office.
Joly’s office did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
The government has previously enlisted different federal departments and agencies, including the Defence Department and Communications Security Establishment, to publicly call out what it considers Russian disinformation and propaganda.
Scholz echoed Trudeau’s assertion that Russia’s invasion “was responsible for worsening food security, with grave implications for people worldwide,” even as the German leader reiterated his country’s continued support to Ukraine.
Meanwhile, a sense of dread deepened Tuesday in Ukraine because of warnings that Russia may try to spoil the country’s Independence Day holiday and mark the war’s six-month point with intensified attacks.
The U.S. reinforced the worry with a security alert citing “information that Russia is stepping up efforts to launch strikes against Ukraine’s civilian infrastructure and government facilities in the coming days.”
Kyiv authorities have banned mass gatherings in the capital through Thursday for fear of missile attacks around Independence Day, and Zelenskyy over the weekend warned Russia “may try to do something particularly nasty, something particularly cruel.”
On Tuesday, however, Zelenskyy stressed defiance rather than worry when he raised the national flag at a memorial one day ahead of Independence Day.
“The blue and yellow flag of Ukraine will again fly where it rightfully should be — in all temporarily occupied cities and villages of Ukraine,” he said, including the Crimean Peninsula, which Russia annexed in 2014.
He added: “It is necessary to liberate Crimea from occupation. It will end where it had started.”
At a separate event, Zelenskyy appeared to downplay the threats, indicating that at most, he expected increased intensity rather than new targets, and he added, “No one wants to die, but no one is afraid of Russia, and this is the most important signal.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 23, 2022.
— with files from The Associated Press.
By Lee Berthiaume in Ottawa