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Bringing a Knife to a Gunfight: Canadian Strategic Communications and Information Operations in Latvia, Operation Reassurance 2019-2020

by Chris Wattie

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When the first Canadian soldiers arrived in Latvia in 2017 to assume the leadership of NATO’s enhanced Forward Presence (eFP) battle group, they faced a threat unlike any in our military history. The Canadian-led battle group, along with flanking units in Estonia and Lithuania (led by the United Kingdom and Germany respectively) and an American battle group in Poland, was created to demonstrate NATO’s resolve to defend all its members, including the small and geographically- vulnerable Baltic States.

The mission of the Canadian unit – which incorporates troops from Albania, the Czech Republic, Italy, Poland, Slovakia, Slovenia and Spain – is to deter, and if necessary, to defend Latvia against Russian aggression. However, from the beginning, it has become clear that the threat is not purely – or even mainly – the kinetic capability represented by the three massive Russian army groups just across the border. Indeed, virtually all analysts agree that the chances of Russia launching a conventional kinetic attack into the Baltic States are extremely remote. Recent Russian actions in Georgia, Ukraine, and elsewhere indicate that the threat is more nuanced – that is, their much-analyzed use of hybrid and information warfare to disrupt, to weaken, and to create divisions within targeted nations. Russian kinetic actions are shaped by actions in the Information Environment – actions carried out using far more varied weapons, capabilities, and forces than the traditional Soviet Motor Rifle Division. Conventional military forces are just one of myriad means Russia uses to achieve its desired effects: often the military plays only a supporting role, as in the Russian-sponsored civil war in eastern Ukraine. The forces at the Kremlin’s disposal in shaping these actions range from the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, to targeted assassination teams, or its infamous social media troll farms.

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Flags of the Baltic nations.

In the Baltics, these shaping actions take the form of hostile narratives spread through conventional and social media, influence operations carried out by Russian-controlled or funded non-governmental organizations, and cyber attacks by ‘arms-length’ groups, such as ‘patriotic’ hackers or cyber criminals. Their aim is to discredit the eFP battle groups (and by extension, all of NATO), and weaken the Baltic States’ governance and public confidence in the West, to eventually create weakened and economically-dependent nations on their western borders.

The battle in the Baltics is for the support of the Latvian population. In broad terms, Russia is seeking to divide the people of Latvia, Estonia, and Lithuania from NATO and the European Union. To fight this battle, Canada needs to recognize the importance of the Information Related Capabilities that can enable success in this fight, and invest in developing those capabilities at home and supporting them ‘at the coal face’ in Latvia.

DND photo courtesy of S1 Zach Barr, Air Task Force Romania

An RCAF CF-18 Hornet pilot mounts his jet before a combat training flight during Operation Reassurance, Air Task Force Romania, 25 September 2020, at Mihail Kogălniceanu Air Base, Romania.


Canada needs to act promptly to enable these capabilities, because the information battle in the Baltics is already well underway, and so far, it is not going well for us. The Russians have been steadily ‘turning up the volume’ in the information environment. One indicator of this comes from NATO’s Strategic Communications Center of Excellence, headquartered in Riga, which identifies and reports on Russian or Russian-sponsored hostile narratives across a wide variety of Web-based and conventional media. In 2018, the Center counted a total of 1,043 social media or Internet posts classified as hostile narratives, all of them Russian-sponsored. In 2019, that number rose by 8% to 1,123, including a significant spike in narratives claiming NATO is provocative and aggressive. This represents only the most visible facet of a growing and increasingly- complex Russian messaging program aimed at fostering hostility towards the NATO presence among Latvian, Estonian, Lithuanian and Polish audiences by portraying the battle group as the cause of Russian aggression rather than the cure for it. More ominously, this emphasis upon NATO “aggression” could very well be used to justify any future hybrid actions executed by Russia as a response to NATO provocation.

To date, these narratives have not been systematically or effectively countered. Indeed, at present, the Canadian Armed Forces does not even have the means to identify these information attacks, their sources, or their potential impact. The only source of data regarding the volume, messages, and potential impact of such hostile narratives are weekly reports by the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Labs (DFR Labs), prepared for the Strategic Communications Center of Excellence, and based upon open source information. While useful, these reports only sample the most high-profile social media platforms - they do not include similar activities on the Dark Web, Deep Web, Internet discussion and chat groups, or the more specialized social media platforms, used by Latvians, and leveraged by Russian and Russian-sponsored disseminators.

Canada’s mission in Latvia has already come under fire from these hostile narratives. Shortly after the first Canadian battle group arrived, for example, Russian-sponsored media began spreading stories referencing serial killer and former RCAF Colonel Russ Williams as an example of Canadian military leadership. As recently as late-2019, stories appeared in Russian media and their proxies ridiculing a Canadian Forces policy that dictated the barbers serving the battle group had to be hired from Canada, rather than locally. And. as the COVID-19 pandemic spread across Europe, Russian-sponsored narratives painted the NATO battle groups as potential sources of infection – a threat to the health of Latvians.

DND photo IS06-2017-0004-070 by Master Corporal Jennifer Kusche

Major Caroline Pollock attends an exercise planning brief alongside her American and Latvian counterparts in the Hohenfels Training Area, Germany, on Exercise Allied Spirit VI during Operation Reassurance, 18 March 2017.

Steps are being taken to identify and address the information threat in the Baltics, and to begin countering this growing tide of hostile messaging. Early in the Canadian mission, Task Force Latvia established a Strategic Communications (StratCom) cell in its headquarters to better understand and counter this threat. This represented an important step for the Canadian Armed Forces – the first operational StratCom capability it has ever fielded, bringing Civil Military Cooperation (CIMIC), Information Operations and Public Affairs specialists into one team of officers and non-commissioned members to work in the Information Environment in Latvia and beyond.

The cell was designed to coordinate the activities from these and other Information Related Capabilities, such as Psychological Operations (Psyops) or Cyber Operations, synchronizing all of these capabilities, focusing and aligning their activities with strategic-level objectives, and achieving tactical effects in the Information Environment with potentially significant strategic implications. In doing this, the StratCom cell acts as the task force commander’s ‘eyes and ears’ in the information environment, both informing and advising with respect to the potential impact of friendly tactical activities. For example, during the planning stages of a public outreach event by the eFP battle group (a display of vehicles and equipment for high school students in a mid-sized Latvian city), the StratCom cell learned that the mayor of the community hosting the event had recently been arrested on corruption charges. The mayor had sponsored the youth festival, and was expected to be present to oversee the arrival of hundreds of young people and their teachers at a local park, where they were to tour military vehicles, and to meet with battle group soldiers, Latvian National Guard troops, and local police officers. The StratCom cell prepared a detailed briefing for the task force commander, which included the relevant background information and an assessment that any public appearances alongside this individual would almost certainly be seized upon by Russian-sponsored media and social media outlets, and used to discredit the NATO mission.

The StratCom cell was also instrumental in gaining and maintaining situational awareness of the civilian situation in the Task Force area of operations, and in keeping the commander apprised of ongoing issues that might have tactical, operational or strategic level implications. The cell planned and executed Operation Saprasana (Latvian for “understanding”), an ongoing series of CIMIC community assessments of Latvian towns and cities, focussed initially upon communities along or near the borders with Russia and Belarus. CIMIC teams, and other members of the StratCom cell, accompanied by their colleagues from the Latvian Joint Headquarters and members of the local Zemmessardze (National Guard) battalions, met with local civic, business, and other community leaders and developed assessments of each municipality, encompassing their political, military/security, economic, social, informational, and infrastructure situation. These assessments produced a flood of valuable information, captured in a searchable database which – when assessments of all major Latvian communities are completed – will allow the commander, Task Force Latvia and his staff to access detailed data on any area of interest in Latvia. This information could be used to plan battle group exercises, to guide outreach events to maximize their impact on desired target audiences, to facilitate planning for any future domestic operations in support of Latvian authorities (including supporting military response to natural disasters like flooding), or to gauge the impact of Russian-sponsored disinformation campaigns on vulnerable audiences, to name but a few potential applications.

One early indicator of the value of this operation came during the StratCom’s CIMIC team assessment of the town of Kraslava in southeast Latvia, situated along the Belarus border. Meetings with municipal officials, confirmed by conversations with some local inhabitants, revealed that the general feeling among the community was that NATO had been invisible in their region, and that the NATO force had been avoiding the area because they were hesitant to come so close to the border. In this case, the absence of any public events by the Latvian or foreign military was having exactly the wrong effect in the community, which has a large ethnic Russian and Polish minority population. Within a few weeks, an event was organized in Kraslava led by the Polish contingent of the NATO battle group, which was warmly greeted by the local population and contributed greatly to achieving the mission’s desired effect of reassuring Latvians that NATO was committed to defending them. This is also an example of how the battle group acts, not only as a deterrent to a potential conventional attack, but also as a force in the information environment. It is arguably more effective as a deterrent through its effects in the Information Environment than through its conventional defensive capability.

DND photo IS14-2017-0003-132 by Corporal Jordan Lobb

Canadian Armed Forces Clearance Divers with Fleet Diving Unit Atlantic return from mine clearing operations off the coast of Mikeltornis, Latvia, 27 August 2017, during Operation Open Spirit 2017.

The StratCom cell plays a particularly crucial role in tracking hostile narratives in the area of operations, the informational attacks upon the credibility of NATO, the Canadian mission, and upon Latvian support for both. Using the limited means at their disposal (including the StratCom Center of Excellence data mentioned earlier, and some creative use of Latvian-and Russian-language Internet search engines) the cell’s analysts monitored the volume of these Russian informational offensives, and assessed their effectiveness on key target audiences in Latvia by gauging the number of people viewing as ‘liking,’ and then sharing hostile narrative stories or posts. They were also able to identify emerging trends in the information attacks, as well as potential vulnerabilities of the Canadian mission by analyzing trends in the tone and subject matter of the hostile narratives. For instance, the StratCom cell was able to identify one new hostile narrative soon after it appeared: that is, social and conventional media attacks on the economic impact of the Canadian presence in Latvia. Russian-sponsored stories, such as an online article about the hiring of Canadian barbers over local barbers, or social media posts accusing Canadians posted to Latvia of causing a hike in rental or housing prices were a clear attempt to drive a wedge between the Latvian public and the Canadian soldiers deployed there. These narratives also cleverly played on the widely held belief in Latvia that their government was paying millions of euros a year to fund the NATO presence in their country (when in fact, the opposite was true), and were bolstered by a growing number of attacks on defence spending in Latvia as “a waste of money.” The StratCom cell was able to devise effective counter-messaging strategies, and recommend changes on the ground (including revising hiring policies for barbers) to counter these attacks.

DND photo courtesy of S1 Zach Barr, Air Task Force Romania.

An RCAF CF-18 Hornet assigned to Air Task Force Romania gets airborne for a combat training flight during Operation Reassurance in September 2020.

In analyzing such hostile narratives, the cell was also able to develop a list of indicators of potential escalation of aggression by the Russians: ‘red flags’ in the information environment that could signal imminent hybrid actions, or even conventional attacks. In cooperation with the Task Force’s J2 cell, and with the assistance of researchers at Defence Research Development Canada, the StratCom cell looked at several Russian actions across the spectrum of hybrid conflict, including the invasion of Georgia (2008), the annexation of Crimea, and Russian sponsoring of rebels in eastern Ukraine (2014), the cyber attacks and fomenting of civil unrest in Estonia (2007), the attempted coup in Montenegro (2016), and others. The cell found broad similarities in certain activities prior to major actions by the Russians or their proxies, such as holding news conferences in the vicinity of targeted areas, particularly in conjunction with major, unplanned troop manoeuvres or exercises. Similarly, the presence of reporters from state-controlled or sponsored media (such as Sputnik, RTS) embedded with Russian formations in regions bordering on targeted nations, was assessed as another potential sign of imminent hybrid or conventional action, along with certain forms of cyber attacks on political, military and economic institutions (particularly Distributed Denial Of Service [DDOS] attacks and defacing of government, political, or military Internet sites), perpetrated by Russian ‘patriotic hacker’ groups or other deniable, ‘arms-length’ actors, such as cyber criminal gangs.

However, the work of the StratCom cell has not been without its challenges. Since its inception, the cell has struggled with inadequate resources and support, both from the task force and from Canada. Although its work to date has been valuable, there is much more that can and should be accomplished.

Tracking threats in the information environment has been constrained by a lack of resources. Currently, DFR Labs is the task force’s only source for tracking hostile narratives in the area of operations, and while their data is useful, it is able to identify only the ‘tip of a very large iceberg.’ In addition, one of the few additional ways of identifying these attacks, and assessing their effectiveness in influencing the Latvian public, is by monitoring Latvian news media. At present, the only way the StratCom cell can do this is through the good graces of Global Affairs Canada and the overworked staff of Canada’s Embassy to the Baltics, who have the only program for media monitoring in- theatre. Requests for funding to acquire ‘off-the-shelf’ computer programs to monitor these all-important informational attacks – whether on the Internet, social media, or mainstream Latvian media – have been stalled since mid-2019, meaning that the threat from Russian informational attacks may be even greater than what we have already seen. Frankly, we just do not know...

Additionally, the StratCom cell currently has no line item within the Task Force Latvia budget. As a result, members of the team must request funding for every activity they undertake – requests that are often denied for cost-saving reasons. This has resulted in limitations on the frequency and duration of CIMIC teams’ travel outside Riga, curtailing their ability to conduct assessments of Latvian towns and cities. For example, team members have even been forced to ‘pay out of pocket’ for small commemorative gifts for the local Latvian officials they meet.

DND photo by enhanced Forward Presence Battle Public Affairs Imagery Technician.

Canadian Reconnaissance Platoon and Canadian Electronic Warfare Technicians practice platoon level reconnaissance procedures during Exercise Wendigo Spirit as part of Operation Reassurance in the Camp Adazi Training Area, Latvia, 25 August 2020.

The StratCom cell has also struggled to integrate their approach to supporting strategic objectives within traditional planning in Task Force Latvia headquarters, which has to date focussed upon conventional, kinetic objectives and effects. The cell has drafted a framework of effects and objectives in the Information Environment, based upon NATO and Canadian Joint Operations Command orders, but it has been a constant challenge to adequately assess success – whether of NATO exercises, task force or eFP battle group events, or in countering hostile messaging from across the Russian border. The cell developed a series of Measures of Performance and Effectiveness to assess their progress towards attaining Canadian and NATO objectives, but indicators of success (or failure) have been collected sporadically, or not at all. Failure to collect these indicators – ranging from the number of positive or negative interactions between Canadian soldiers and the Latvian public, to positive mentions of Canada’s presence in Latvia by political or business leaders – have been largely the result of indifference: the assessment of effects in the Information Environment is simply not a priority for staff in the Task Force or the eFP battle group.

Similarly, support for the cell from higher headquarters in Canada has been limited at best. No Target Audience list has been issued to the task force to identify approved, recommended, or restricted target audiences for information operations, leaving the StratCom cell to ‘puzzle out’ on its own what Latvians would be most receptive to our messages. Furthermore, no analysis support has been forthcoming for the task force’s lone target audience analyst, who produced the theatre’s first Target Audience Analysis (TAA) in 2019, working almost entirely on her own, helped only by other members of the StratCom cell and her colleagues in the Latvian Joint Headquarters Info Ops branch. A TAA is a critical tool for determining which audiences are receptive to our messaging, and – most importantly – how that messaging can be framed and disseminated to have the greatest effect. No bank of approved messaging or themes has been issued from higher authority (normally these would come from the Canadian Joint Operations Command (CJOC), or the Strategic Joint Staff (SJS) for the task force to use for tactical level engagements. Further, Task Force Latvia has not yet been involved in any full-spectrum-targeting processes to identify and counter hostile narratives, even though it is the Canadian military’s key sensor on the ground in Eastern Europe.

Force generation has been another challenge. The headquarters is slowly but surely transitioning from being staffed by deployed soldiers (serving six- to nine-month tours in Latvia)to one built around posted personnel (on two- to three-year tours in Latvia). One of the consequences of this shift has been a reduction in qualifications and experience in the StratCom cell. On the first rotation in Latvia, all members of the cell were Influence Activities qualified, trained and experienced at Information Operations, Psyops, or through Civil-Military Cooperation (CIMIC). By 2019-2020, only four of the nine officers and NCMs in the cell had Information Activities training, and only two had the all-important CIMIC qualification. This qualification is critical because experienced CIMIC operators are trained, not only to interact with civilian populations in military Areas of Operation (AOs), but also to assess the impact of the mission on civilians in the battle space and – crucially in Latvia – to assess the impact of civilians on the mission.

DND photo by Corporal White-Finkle

Able Seaman Tirell Price, a boatswain, checks a bearing aboard HMCS Toronto during Operation Reassurance, 10 August 2020.

On a more basic level, there are also no translators or cultural advisors attached to the StratCom cell. Cell members must use Google Translate to search online sources for Latvian- or Russian-language news articles, or simply to gather basic information about Latvian communities or individuals. During outreach events or community assessment visits, they must rely on their Latvian National Forces colleagues to translate for them.

Currently, task force planning and activities are focussed almost exclusively on the conventional, kinetic capabilities, embodied in the eFP battle group - the mission is seen in terms of deterring and if necessary defending Latvia against a conventional Russian attack. Successive rotations of Canadian-led battle groups have done an excellent job of maintaining that conventional capability, building interoperability with other contributing nations and our Latvian allies to create a credible combat force to meet any conventional attack across the Russian border. And while this conventional credibility can have – and has had – effects in the Information Environment, not enough has been done to capitalize on the informational effects of the battle group’s presence.

Our adversaries are not stupid: they realize that any conventional attack on the Baltics would have dire strategic consequences, up to and including nuclear war. Furthermore, there is little for them to gain by an invasion and occupation of the Baltic States, either politically or diplomatically, or in terms of resources or economic benefits. Instead, they are fighting an informational battle to divide the people of Latvia, Estonia, and Lithuania from NATO and weaken the alliance, as well as the European Union. How successful their flood of hostile narratives has been in achieving this is an open question, but it is clearly their main avenue of approach in attempting to undermine NATO in Eastern Europe.

There has been some progress in meeting this threat. Task Force Latvia has begun to develop contingency plans based around hybrid threat scenarios, a far more likely course of action for our adversary than a conventional attack. Operation Saprasana has taken the first steps in long process of building a comprehensive picture of the civilian situation in Latvia, including gaining more information on the impact of Russian propaganda on the ground. But progress has been slow. So far, only a handful of communities have been assessed under Operation Saprasana, the staff planning process for meeting potential hybrid threats is proceeding slowly, and work on key analytical tools like the Target Audience Analysis has stalled by budget and personnel constraints.

DND photo RP13-2017-0057-062 by Sergeant Bernie Kuhn

A Canadian soldier with NATO’s enhanced Forward Presence battle group Latvia provides dismounted vehicle security during the Certification Exercise at Camp Adazi, Latvia, 23 August 2017, during Operation Reassurance.

For the mission in Latvia to more effectively track and counter this growing threat, more needs to be done. Task Force Latvia and the Canadian-led battle group need the following – at a minimum – and they need this support as soon as possible:

  • Acquisition of software that can track and prioritize Russian and Russian-sponsored hostile narratives across the information environment, including not just social and online media, but as many means of dissemination as possible: conventional media, Dark and Deep Web sources, text messaging applications, and others.
  • A more robust analysis and targeting capability for counter-propaganda and counter messaging, either within Task Force Latvia, as a reach back capability in Canada, or a combination of the two. A Target Audience Analysis is a critical starting point to any information operations. That it took nearly three years to produce one for such an important theatre speaks to a profound ‘under-appreciation’ of the importance of this document. The current TAA needs to be approved at the highest levels, and follow-up analyses should be started immediately, identifying key demographics in the Latvian population and how to reach them.
  • A larger and more capable Influence Activities cell for the Canadian-led battle group which currently has only three officers and NCOs in its S9 cell, who must also handle duties as liaison and visits staff. Given the importance of the battle group’s interactions with the Latvian population, and their potental impact as an embodiment of NATO’s commitment to their country’s defence, it desperately needs to include a full platoon of trained and experienced CIMIC operators.
  • Adequate support to the task force’s StratCom cell to allow its members to do their jobs, including a dedicated budget, their own vehicles, and the addition of Latvian translators and cultural advisors to the cell.


The Latvian mission is in many ways a testing ground for Canada’s Influence Activities capability, but the results to date suggest this capability is nascent at best. Canada needs to invest seriously to build on the successes and address the challenges faced by Task Force Latvia’s StratCom Cell, in aid of developing a modern, well-financed and innovative capability. And it should be done sooner, rather than later. The strategic importance of this fight is clear; the credibility of NATO to its member nations and that of Canada as a founding member of the alliance is under persistent attack by Russia. The national and international stakes are high and our senior leadership (both military and civilian) seem to understand the broader implications of the informational confrontation in the Baltics. But we are not succeeding at operationalizing that understanding, or even recognizing the challenges and how to meet them. To do so will require an active effort to raise the importance of Influence Activities in the Canadian Armed Forces, and translate that strategic importance into tactical capabilities that can fight and win the battle that is already well underway.

Major Chris Wattie, CD, is a reservist, serving as Officer Commanding D Company (IA), Royal Hamilton Light Infantry, based in Hamilton, Ontario. He has deployed on Operation Impact, as an information operations planner for Operation Inherent Resolve in 2017-2018, and most recently, on Operation Reassurance in 2019-2020, where he was Information Operations Assessment Officer for Task Force Latvia’s StratCom and Effects cell in Riga, Latvia.