The Canadian-led NATO battle group in Latvia was the target of a pandemic-related disinformation campaign that alliance commanders say they believe originated in Russia.
Reports circulated recently in some Baltic and Eastern European media outlets that suggested the contingent at Camp Adazi in Kadaga, outside the capital of Riga, had “a high number” of cases of the deadly virus.
“That was definitely not true,” said Col. Eric Laforest, commander of the battle group.
When the reports first surfaced, ahead of a major exercise late last month, the Latvian defence ministry swung into action to counter the false information.
“The Latvian authorities here were the ones to set the record straight because it was information about troops stationed in their country,” said Laforest. “Rapidly, within a matter of a few hours, they went out and explained what the situation was. It actually happened fairly fast.”
NATO was also quick to spot and swat down reports that the camp was a pandemic hot zone, he added.
A pattern of propaganda
It’s not the first time Russian-backed media outlets in the Baltic country have been accused of working to drive a wedge between the western military contingent and the Latvian public. Not long after the deployment began three years ago, reports emerged online that specifically smeared Canadian troops.
NATO and Canadian commanders have countered disinformation campaigns in the past by staying active in the local community and being seen doing good deeds.
The pandemic has put a lid on that activity for the time being, but Laforest said the battle group remains active on social media.
He said he believes the effort to discount the false reports was successful because they have witnessed no further attempts to sow discord.
A European agency that tracks disinformation said the rumours and conspiracy theories surrounding the pandemic are more insidious than most — because when people believe their health is being threatened, they will lash out, sometimes irrationally.
Peter Stano of the European External Action Service (an arm of the European Union) pointed to the spread online of reports advising people to drink bleach to avoid being infected, or blaming 5G technology for the pandemic and calling on people to attack cellphone towers.
“This is very dangerous because then you have people who are acting on this disinformation and this misguided advice, and it can lead to problems,” Stano said in a recent interview with CBC’s Investigative Unit.
The propaganda campaign directed at NATO troops emerged around the time they were engaged in a training exercise which took them just outside their base.
Known as Exercise Steele Crescendo, the training involved troops and tanks simulating defences against an armoured attack on the Baltic country.
The troops had to operate in a “constrained environment” and soldiers wore masks whenever it made sense to wear them, Laforest said.
He said they also tried to respect the two-metre physical distancing rule.
Unlike the military training mission in Ukraine, which is largely shut down because of the pandemic, the rotation of troops from Canada into Latvia, scheduled for July, will go ahead as planned.
“That hasn’t changed and we have all of the plans in place to ensure that we conduct a safe relief in place,” said Laforest.
The other nations that are part of the battle group — Albania, the Czech Republic, Italy, Montenegro, Poland, Slovakia, Slovenia and Spain — will also switch up their contingents.
To ensure safety, Laforest said, all of the incoming troops will be required to isolate themselves on military bases for two weeks prior to deployment.
Earlier this month, to mark the third anniversary of the deployment, the president of Latvia, Egils Levits, wrote to Governor General Julie Payette to express his country’s gratitude for the Canadian presence.
In his letter, Levits made special mention of the fact that it’s very difficult for soldiers to be away from their families and loved ones during a pandemic, adding Latvia is taking all necessary safety measures to protect the health of allied troops.
Laforest agreed, but said the troops stayed connected with home throughout the crisis.