OTTAWA — Prime Minister Justin Trudeau cited a disinformation campaign against his foreign affairs minister as he responded Wednesday to lingering questions about the government's assertion that Russia had undermined Canada's democratic system.
The idea that Moscow had interfered in Canada's political system arose last week when Global Affairs said it was expelling four Russian diplomats who were intelligence officers or had used their special status "to undermine Canada's security or interfere in our democracy."
While the move was part of a co-ordinated effort to punish the Kremlin for its alleged involvement in the poisoning of a former Russian spy and his daughter in the United Kingdom, the reference to an apparent plot against Canada has sparked calls for details.
Trudeau refused to delve into specifics during a news conference Wednesday on Parliament Hill, and instead accused "Russian propagandists" of trying to discredit Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland.
Pro-Russian websites have repeatedly targeted Freeland, one of the government's strongest critics of Russia, as well as her family. Among the allegations is that her Ukrainian-born grandfather helped the Nazis during the Second World War.
"We all can remember the efforts by Russian propagandists to discredit our minister of foreign affairs in various ways through social media and by sharing scurrilous stories about her," Trudeau said when asked about the expelled diplomats.
"There are multiple ways in which Russia uses cyber, social media, propaganda to sway public opinion, to try and push a pro-Russia narrative. … This is a pattern we have seen regularly."
Trudeau's comments followed a meeting with the head of the NATO military alliance, who also delivered some tough words for Moscow, saying it had "underestimated NATO's resolve and unity."
The alliance has deployed four battlegroups into the Baltics, including one led by Canada in Latvia, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said, and member states — including Canada — have started to increase their defence spending.
"Let me commend Canada for investing more in defence," he said while Trudeau looked on. "After years of decline, defence spending now is increasing and I welcome your government's commitment to make further increases."
The Liberals promised last year to increase spending on the military by 70 per cent over the next 10 years — though even with the increase, Canada will fall short of NATO's target of spending two per cent of GDP on defence.
Yet Stoltenberg, whose organization was founded 69 years ago Wednesday to protect Western Europe from a Soviet invasion, added that NATO does not want a new Cold War, as he held out hope for a political resolution to the standoff with Russia.
Such hopes appeared to take a hit, however, following reports Wednesday that Russia test fired several live missiles into the Baltic Sea.
The tests appeared to be in response to a meeting between U.S. President Donald Trump and Latvian President Raimonds Vejonis on Tuesday and forced Latvia, where Canada has 450 soldiers, to close part of its airspace.
NATO troops in the area have been put on alert, Stoltenberg said, even as he described the tests as part of the broader pattern of Russian aggression that is exactly why the military alliance has had to step up its game.
Earlier in the day, Freeland told an audience in Winnipeg that the upcoming G7 foreign ministers meeting in Toronto would be focused on sending a strong signal of disapproval to Russia for its recent actions in the world.
The ministers will be targeting Russia's ongoing annexation of Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula and the recent nerve gas attack in Salisbury, England, which has been blamed on the Kremlin, Freeland said.
The Kremlin has denied any involvement in the attack on former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter.
"One of the biggest challenges to that rules based international order is Russia and the Putin regime and the actions they are taking," Freeland said during a question and answer session.
Freeland has been meeting or speaking by phone with her G7 counterparts ahead of the April 22 meeting in Toronto.
Lee Berthiaume and Mike Blanchfield, The Canadian Press