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Did Chrystia Freeland pose with extremist symbols or is it Russian disinformation?


‘A classic KGB disinformation smear is accusing Ukrainians and Ukrainian-Canadians of being far right extremists or fascists or Nazis,’ Freeland’s press secretary said

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Canadian Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland is being assailed with online accusations that she posed with far-right symbols at a pro-Ukraine rally in Toronto. But the symbol may not be as far-right as critics claim, and Freeland’s office is saying the whole thing reeks of Russian-sponsored “disinformation.”

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On Sunday, Freeland joined several thousand demonstrators at a pro-Ukraine rally in downtown Toronto. In a photo her office subsequently posted on Twitter, Freeland can be seen helping to hold up a red-and-black scarf bearing the slogan “Slava Ukraini” (Glory to Ukraine).

Observers were quick to note that red-and-black were the official colours of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army, a nationalist partisan group active during the Second World War.

Although the group fought against both Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, a faction led by Stepan Bandera would ally itself with German forces and become an active participant in the Holocaust, directly killing thousands of Jews and an estimated 100,000 Poles.

It’s why red-and-black flags remain a favoured symbol of the Ukrainian far-right. The colours are a prominent feature of an annual torchlit march through Kyiv held by far-right nationalists to honour Bandera.

As a widely circulated story on the Canadian right-wing site True North put it, Freeland has posed with a “pro-Nazi” banner. People’s Party of Canada Leader Maxime Bernier put out a Tuesday tweet accusing Canada of having a “nazi as deputy prime minister.”

Soon after its posting, the original photo was deleted and replaced with an image of Freeland without the scarf.

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Freeland’s office confirmed that they removed the original photo after it began to be circulated by accounts critical of the scarf’s presence.

“A photo was taken, tweeted, and later replaced when it was clear some accounts were distorting the intent of the rally and photo,” read a statement by Freeland press secretary Adrienne Vaupshas. She added that the origins of the scarf were not known and that “many people were jockeying for photos and giving the Deputy Prime Minister tokens.”

Natalia Khanenko-Friesen, director of the Canadian Institute of Ukrainian Studies, told the National Post that the red-and-black symbology for Ukraine long predates its adoption by extremist groups. Khanenko-Friesen noted that red-and-black banners can be seen in paintings depicting the Cossack Hetmanate, a period of Ukrainian Cossack rule that began in the 17th century.

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The black represents the Ukrainian soil, while the red symbolizes blood — although Khanenko-Friesen (a scholar of Ukrainian folklore) said it’s not traditionally understood as blood in any violent context. “Blood as life, as blossom, and not as blood lost in battles,” she said. Red and black remains a common colour scheme in traditional Ukrainian embroidery.

The wider context to the whole affair is that Russian Federation sources have been mounting an aggressive propaganda campaign framing any support of Ukraine as being akin to an endorsement of neo-Nazism.

In justifying the invasion of Ukraine last week, Russian President Vladimir Putin said it was merely a “special military operation” to “denazify” Ukraine.

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When Canada joined the first round of sanctions against Russia, Ottawa’s Russian Embassy issued a statement accusing Canada of being a “zealous” sponsor of Ukrainian “Nazism.”

The tactic is nothing new. Ever since Russia’s seizure of Crimea in 2014, Russian diplomats and state media have frequently alleged that Canadian foreign policy is disproportionately shaped by a Ukrainian-Canadian community that is flush with fascist sympathizers.

In 2019, one of Russia’s most popular primetime news programs ran a special feature seeming to link Canadian support of Ukraine’s pro-Western government to fascist elements within the country’s Ukrainian diaspora.

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“A classic KGB disinformation smear is accusing Ukrainians and Ukrainian-Canadians of being far right extremists or fascists or Nazis,” Vaupshas told the National Post.

“We condemn all far-right and extremist views and organizations, whether they are in Russia, Ukraine, or Canada. The Deputy Prime Minister has no association with any far-right organizations.“

Marcus Kolga is a Macdonald-Laurier fellow who runs DisinfoWatch, a website tracking foreign disinformation narratives. He was also at the Sunday rally not far away from where the scarf photo was taken.

Kolga told the National Post that anyone touting the photo as evidence of any Nazi sympathies among the Canadian federal government are “unwittingly participating in an active Russian information operation.”

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“One of the narratives that they (the Russian Federation) use is to smear critics as being fascists or Nazis,” he said, adding that it was something that Soviet sources were directing at the Ukrainian-Canadian community as far back as the 1970s.

“Disinformation is a real threat and Canadians need to be vigilant — it is a tool the Kremlin deploys to undermine democracies,” Ihor Michalchyshyn, CEO of the Ukrainian Canadian Congress, told the National Post when asked about the controversy regarding Freeland’s holding of a red-and-black scarf.

The spotlight has been particularly harsh on Freeland. Not only is she a prominent Ukrainian-Canadian who has been vocal in her opposition to Putin’s regime, but her family tree does indeed include a Nazi collaborator.

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Freeland’s maternal grandfather, Michael Chomiak, was the editor of Kravivski Visti, a pro-Nazi newspaper established in German-occupied Poland during the Second World War.

When the detail first emerged in pro-Russian media following Freeland’s 2017 appointment as Canadian minister of foreign affairs, her office did not address the claim directly, but warned Canadian media to be wary of Russian disinformation.

Reporting by Canadian media would confirm Chomiak’s links to Kravivski Visti. It was something the family openly acknowledged when Chomiak’s papers were donated to Alberta’s provincial archives.

The easy counterpoint to Russian claims of Ukrainian neo-Nazism are that there are no Nazi states headed by a Jewish president. Ukrainian head of state Volodymyr Zelenskyy is indeed Jewish, had members of his family murdered in the Holocaust and is even earning plaudits in the Israeli media as a “modern Maccabee” — a reference to the Jewish rebel warriors celebrated by the festival of Hanukkah.

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Regardless, Russian propaganda efforts haven’t been hurt by the continued presence within the Ukrainian military of the Azov Battalion.

Consisting of roughly 900 soldiers, the Azov battalion has spent the last eight years fighting for Ukraine against pro-Russian separatists in the Donbass region. Although military observers consider the battalion a “fringe” element within the wider Ukrainian military, it has openly neo-Nazi sympathies, with members often seen posing with swastikas or photos of Adolf Hitler.

Just a few months ago, it became a minor scandal in Canada when it emerged that members of the Azov battalion had received Canadian training as part of Operation Unifier, Canada’s eight-year mission to train Ukrainian soldiers against the prospect of Russian invasion.

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