Just over a year ago, Open Canada hosted an essay contest where junior scholars were asked to reflect on future defence and security challenges for Canada. In light of two major news stories this week–the coronavirus pandemic and the Canadian government’s report on foreign interference–two of those essays are especially relevant. Last week we shared Jesse Kancir’s article on global public health. This week we publish Marshall Palmer’s winning essay, “Canada Needs to Broaden its Grey Zone Defences”.
As revelations continue to emerge concerning the depths of Russian interference in the domestic politics of Western democracies, Canadians should take stock of our own vulnerability to foreign meddling.
Indeed, signs of Russian interference are already present. A United States congressional probe, released in 2018, found that the Kremlin-affiliated ‘Internet Research Agency’ sought to inflame the debate surrounding the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline. Another study revealed a wider Russian focus on Canada. Twitter-bots spread rumours and stoked hysteria around the 2016 Quebec City Mosque shooting, the issue of asylum seekers, and Ottawa’s policy towards Syria. Even Canadian sport was targeted, with bots tweeting false information about athletes refusing to stand for the national anthem at NHL games, mirroring a similar (but real) controversy in the National Football League.
It is Canada’s good fortune that these efforts remained a side-project for the Kremlin, and that their impact was negligible. However, as the consequences of Russian interference in the 2016 US election become increasingly appreciated, Canadian officials have found it essential to prepare a robust defence.
Russia acts this way because it has an intense interest in sowing discord between members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). It also aims to individually weaken NATO members by the stoking the flames of internal dissent. As an authoritarian state, Russia is additionally threatened by the transnational appeal of liberal democracy. By exacerbating political relations between and within democracies, Russia hopes to showcase to its own population the necessity of an authoritarian political system.
To achieve these goals, Moscow acts in the ‘grey zone’ of state competition. This is an area outside the realm of acceptable interstate relations but below the threshold of armed conflict. It can cover light propaganda efforts, of the type seen in Canada, to more systematic attempts to sway elections, like that experienced in the 2016 US presidential election. At its most extreme, it can include outright criminal interference, bribery, blackmail, and even assassination. By exploiting both technical and social vulnerabilities, these operations shape the political environment towards a certain outcome. At the moment, Russia is the main practitioner of grey zone operations, but adversaries that could appear on the horizon — China, for example — will certainly be keen on using similar methods. Indeed as long as our American ally remains the predominant military force on the planet — and it will be for some time — our comparatively weaker adversaries will continue to compete in the grey zone.
The good news is that Ottawa has already begun to confront this problem. Canada’s latest defence policy, Strong, Secure, Engaged, identified the grey zone as an emergent security threat. Canada’s Communications Security Establishment (CSE) published its own study of ‘influence operations’ in mid-2017. The report found that Canada is not immune to cyber intervention, identifying the media, political parties, and individual politicians as especially vulnerable. The report furthermore concluded that ‘it is highly probable that cyber threat activity against democratic processes worldwide will increase in quantity and sophistication over the next year, and perhaps beyond that.’
Both documents outline important steps towards countering grey zone threats, and the government has taken this issue seriously. The 2018 budget devoted hundreds of millions towards bolstering our defences. The high levels of Canadian society will therefore be primed and on the lookout for foreign intervention ahead of the 2019 election and beyond.
Unfortunately, however, these efforts do not fully cover all of our bases. Both documents reflect the bureaucratic biases of their sponsoring establishments, leading them to neglect focusing on vulnerabilities within one other key constituency often targeted by grey zone campaigns: society at large. As the CSE acknowledges itself in its conclusion, grey zone operations are often successful because they “take advantage of deeply rooted human behaviours and social patterns, and not merely technological vulnerabilities.” A proper defence must address this critical social element, not only among elite organizations but within wider society.
What makes this vulnerability so challenging is that it is organic. It exists independent of foreign actors, although it is easily exploitable by them. It is rooted within cognitive flaws relating to how humans process information and construct belief. Consider the growing numbers of people who buy into conspiracy theories, like anti-vaccination or the emergent QAnon theory in the US. Material like this — which divides governments from the people — is a ripe target for foreign actors. And indeed Russia is already taking advantage of the opportunity.
A forward-thinking resiliency policy must therefore tackle the tendency within society that allows fringe conspiracy theories to reach politically significant levels of followers or even become mainstream. It has to include an educational component, designed to better how the next generation approaches incoming information. A greater emphasis needs to be placed in teaching techniques of critical thinking. This must be combined with top-down efforts to shed light on the origins and potential biases of online sources, and on the agendas of state-owned media, like Russia Today. Such an approach would foster a resilient citizenship, one inoculated against the threat of destabilizing domestic populists and foreign actors seeking to take advantage of them.
Canada is geopolitically blessed to be surrounded by three ocean-sized moats and to have our only land neighbour be simultaneously the most powerful state on the planet and our closest ally. Unlike other states, we do not face major traditional threats. Yet because of this advantage, our adversaries will attempt to weaken us in untraditional ways. Operations in the grey zone will almost certainly increase in the coming years. Our nation is prepared to defend our elite institutions, but a comprehensive defence must also focus on building an organic resiliency towards the type of natural but flawed thinking within society that makes us a target in the first place. Canada is lucky to have been forewarned of this vulnerability. The supreme responsibly of government demands a robust and generational response to this most pressing defence and security challenge.
Marshall Palmer is currently completing his PhD at the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs at Carleton University. He is a former NATO security analyst and holds degrees in International Relations from the London School of Economics and the University of Oxford.