He’s no bot, but Russia’s social media and press guy in Canada manages to stir up controversy just the same

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PHOTOS: Kirill Kalinin, Press Secretary of the Embassy of the Russian Federation in Ottawa, in a reception room of the Soviet-era structure on Charlotte Street. Below: An image shot last week of the exterior of the Embassy, built in 1956 after the original building on the site burned down; the Embassy’s replica of the flag hoisted over the Reichstag in Berlin by the victorious Red Army in May 1945; and Alexander Darchiev, Russia’s Ambassador to Canada (Photo: CBC).

OTTAWA

You’ve likely never heard of him, but Kirill Kalinin may be one of the more influential media-relations operators in Canada.

He has a track record of generating significant coverage for stories mainstream media normally wouldn’t touch with a barge pole. He doesn’t usually get media to adopt his point of view, but he often succeeds at having them acknowledge it, which is important to his employer. He’s not shy about controversy.

He also runs – apparently single handedly – a pretty savvy social media operation with more than 9,000 followers on Twitter. That’s not a huge number compared with rock stars and sports heroes, but it includes a pretty high percentage of the influencers media relations specialists prize.

If most Canadians have never heard of Mr. Kalinin, it’s because he Tweets under the handle “Russia in Canada.” That, in turn, is to be found on Twitter at @RussianEmbassyC.

Are you starting to get the picture?

Mr. Kalinin is Press Secretary of the Embassy of the Russian Federation in Ottawa. If you pay attention to the news in Canada, it’s quite likely you’ve read a news story he’s promoted to reporters and on Twitter. You might even have seen his name, without really noticing it.

When he took over the account in December 2014, the Embassy had sent out 414 Tweets over the previous two years and had about 350 followers. Since then, it’s Tweeted more than 28,000 times.

By contrast, the Twitter account of the Canadian Embassy in Moscow has about 2,000 followers and mostly re-Tweets government of Canada news releases. “Canada in Russia,” found @CanadaRussia, seems to Tweet only in English. So presumably the cautious Canadian effort is directed mainly at a home audience.

But if you’re a Canadian reporter who covers geopolitical issues, you’ve likely received a message from Mr. Kalinin, probably via direct message on Twitter, quite possibly trying to steer you toward a story he thinks you might cover.

Case in point: the recent story that received strong play in the National Post about memorials in several Canadian cities, including Edmonton, to Ukrainian military formations that supported the Nazis and, in the case of the so-called Galician Division of the Waffen SS, were part of the German army that attacked Russia in World War II.

The Post didn’t take a position particularly sympathetic to the Russian Government’s point of view. It accused the Russian Embassy of trying to sow discord in the West, “part of a broader strategy to disrupt the political process in Western democracies.” And its reporter called Mr. Kalinin’s Tweet “an apparent digital extension of its conflict with Ukraine.”

Still, Mr. Kalinin got to repeat the point to Canadians in an influential publication he’d made directly to a limited number on Twitter: “We wanted to let our followers on Twitter know that even today in Canada you can find monuments to Nazi collaborators that committed atrocities in the Soviet Union, Poland, etc. and fought against the heroic Red Army that was allied with Canada, U.S. and Britain during the Second World War,” he said in a note to the Post featured prominently in the story.

It’s unlikely the Post and a few other media organizations would even have covered the story – which was soon making waves south of the 49th Parallel too – were it not for Mr. Kalinin’s efforts to promote it to journalists.

Mr. Kalinin is 32 years old. That’s young to be a diplomat with the rank of First Secretary in the Russian Foreign Service – or the diplomatic services of most countries. It’s young enough, I suppose, for him to get away with saying he’s a Metallica fan!

He’s a graduate of the faculty of Foreign Languages and Area Studies at Moscow State University. While studying there, he focused on North America, with an emphasis on Canada.

He joined the Russian Foreign Service in 2006. He was assigned to the embassy in Canada the next year and stayed there until 2010. Back in Moscow, he served as assistant to Alexander Darchiev, then director of the Foreign Affairs Ministry’s North America Department. In 2013, Moscow sent Mr. Kalinin back to Ottawa where, the next year, Mr. Darchiev turned up as Ambassador.

There’s been a lot of talk in U.S. and Canadian media about Russian bots on social media. Be that as it may, Mr. Kalinin is no bot. He obviously serves Russia’s foreign policy goals, but he appears to be able to operate on social media as many of us do – trusted to respond immediately on behalf of an employer without having to deal with a lot of direct oversight.

We’re all just one Tweet away from unemployment, of course, but I imagine the risks are somewhat higher for Russian diplomats. That said, Mr. Kalinin struck me as a pretty sharp guy when I interviewed him at the Russian Embassy in Ottawa last week. I’m sure he knows exactly where his limits are.

It certainly seems from his Twitter feed and his approach to dealing with reporters that Mr. Kalinin is trusted to make decisions on the fly. He’s in yesterday’s Globe and Mail, for example, brushing off Russia’s exclusion from the G7 by slyly dismissing meetings of the seven countries with the world’s largest economies as a relic of a unipolar past.

Now, the interview was your blogger’s idea. Mr. Kalinin chose the venue: the imposing Soviet-era pile on Charlotte Street that’s been Russia’s Embassy under a couple of different forms of government since 1956, when the previous structure burned down.

Coffee was served in cups trimmed with what looked like real gold. Just as you would expect, there was mineral water on the table – but this being the globalized 21st Century, it was Perrier. The napkins on the table were red, white and blue, arranged in the order of the modern Russian tricolour. Unlike a Canadian or American Embassy, no portrait of the head of the state was evident.

The wall in the reception room where we met, though, displayed a replica of the flag the Red Army hoisted over the Reichstag in Berlin on May 2, 1945 … just in case you were wondering how the Russians feel today about the events that transpired between 1941 and that day. There was a large and intricate chandelier that didn’t match the Embassy’s stark exterior.

So, does Moscow have a social media policy, like a Canadian government department or a corporate communications division might? It would appear it does.

Every Russian Embassy has a press secretary now responsible not just for traditional news releases, but for a social media program prepared to bypass media filters and take Russia’s positions directly to the citizens of other countries, Mr. Kalinin acknowledged. Russia’s press secretaries are mostly “senior level diplomats,” he added, typically with the rank of First Secretary.

“We’ve stepped into the age of Internet and social media,” he observed. “It’s definitely here to stay. … From my experience, I would say that the traditional press release is only a small fraction of how we get our messages across. … Most of the time (reacting) to Canadian unilateral sanctions or open hostile policies.”

“The main effort in social media is engaging and talking to people.” To that end, he added, “I try not to block or mute, unless they are horrifically obscene. … Eighty per cent of the time, we get engaged in civilized discussion.”

Of course, from Russia’s perspective, it’s not necessarily a bad thing if Mr. Kalinin’s Tweets and interviews arouse controversy, as long as that helps get the Russian government’s official point of view across.

And you can do that in Canada. It may not be so easy, perhaps, in Russia for members of the political opposition or, for that matter, the Canadian Embassy’s staff.

Still, if it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing well. It might be worth the cost and effort to find a dependable Russian-language translator and see how Russians respond to an edgy Canadian social media campaign about our foreign policy.

Aren’t we supposed to be better at that stuff here in the West?

Categories Alberta Politics Canadian Politics Geopolitics