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My Dinner With Kirill
A story of information operations and counter-espionage.
A week before Christmas, in 2015, I reached out to the Russian embassy in Ottawa for comment.
A Ukrainian website had been obsessively crawling through Russian social media, VK in particular, to identify Russian soldiers in Syria. Moscow had, ostensibly, joined the fight against the Islamic State — but, more particularly, had dispatched troops to help Syrian autocrat Bashar al-Assad stay in power. Militants and Islamic State fighters were keen to target the Russians. And this Ukrainian website, retaliating for another round of Russian ceasefire violations in the Donbas, were putting the heat on.
The Kremlin was furious.
What’s more, the website was being hosted in Montreal. So Vladimir Putin’s government penned a strongly-worded letter to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who had ascended to power just months earlier, demanding he do…something.
I reached out to the Russian embassy in Ottawa for comment. “The Russian side expects appropriate reaction on this security-related issue,” the embassy told me.
I published the story and thought that was it. The kind of OSINT investigation that Ukrainian website was conducting back then was already becoming more-and-more common — my then-colleague Simon Ostrovsky had just put out the excellent Selfie Soldiers investigation which helped prove the extent of Moscow’s involvement in Ukraine’s occupied east. I was more interested in Russia trying to put that genie back in the bottle.
Then, just a minute before the story went online, I got a DM from the Russian’s embassy’s Twitter account. Kirill Kalinin, the embassy’s spokesperson, was following up with some more useful information for the story. Huh, I thought. Mighty helpful.
Little did I know that it was a relationship that would eventually lead to his expulsion from the country.
This week, on Bug-eyed and Shameless, a little story about foreign interference.
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Anybody who covers Russia is familiar with the network of their embassy Twitter accounts.
They are trolls.
Since becoming an international pariah in 2014, when it launched an astroturf invasion of Donbas and Crimea, Russia has launched a fairly asymmetric information war against the West. It, as we know, used state-backed troll farms and Moscow-managed hackers to try and muck up the 2016 presidential election — but also, to varying degrees, in the Netherlands, United Kingdom, France, and elsewhere.
A huge amount of this meddling is perfectly legal, if uncouth. Because it is run through social media accounts and news outlets that are clearly tied to the Russian government, it’s not exactly clandestine. It also tends to be fairly effective, insofar as a bunch of tweets and media articles can be effective.
You can open up @AmbasadaRusije, @RusEmb_Ecuador or @RusEmbAU and see what Moscow wants to say about Serbia, Ecuador, or Australia in any given day. (Interestingly, as I write this piece, it seems that Twitter at some point shadowbanned all the Russian embassy Twitter accounts, making them difficult to find in search.)
These accounts would run stupid little polls — sometimes in nearly-incomprehensible English — or post truly cringe memes in hopes that it would get pick-up, and weave Russia’s narrative into the Western mainstream press in a way that a simple press release would not. Pretty clever, really.
It is very easy to overstate the case of how impactful it really is — and there’s a good case to be made that getting into our heads is really the most effective kind of meddling of all. When a Canadian news outlet, for example, writes that Russia played a significant role in pumping up the Freedom Convoy, Putin’s propagandists must be squealing with glee. Because the more we attribute social tumult to Russia, the more powerful they seem.
What I discovered, however, is that these Twitter accounts serve a dual function: To troll publicly, sure. But also to do outreach.
That Twitter DM I received from Kalinin in late 2015 was just the beginning.
In February 2016, Kalinin reached out again. I had picked up on a notice that the Supreme Court of Canada had rejected a government appeal in a deportation case. Ottawa wanted to strip Helmut Oberlander of his Canadian citizenship and ship him back to Germany, possibly to face war crimes charges. Oberlander was a translator for a mobile Nazi death squad in the Second World War, but has always maintained that he was conscripted into service. Ottawa argued he enabled the extermination of Jews, Poles, Romani, and other groups.
“Justin. Great article on Oberlander,” Kalinin wrote. “Here's a link on our website you might find interesting.” He pointed me to another former Nazi in Canada.
We exchanged some message, and he teased “a very interesting archive at the embassy” full of details on hundreds of other former Nazis still in the country. Obviously, I leaped at the mention of a secret archive.
“Unfortunately, it's classified,” he wrote. “There are many documents that cannot be unclassified in this file. But we could meet up at some point and just get acquianted, talk about nazi hunting, etc.”
My eyebrows, as I’m sure you can imagine, were halfway to the ceiling. Who doesn’t love an invite from the embassy of an unfriendly foreign power to do some Nazi hunting? But something else Kalinin said gave away the game. “There was a big connection to the Ukranian Canadian Congress,” he wrote. (All spelling mistakes are his.)
I knew full well the plan: Furnish me with a bunch of records about Ukrainian partisans who fought for the Nazis, against the Communists, and help bolster the narrative that Ukraine is an inherently far-right, anti-semitic, Nazi country. There wasn’t much subtly to that — after all, that’s what Russian embassies around the world do all the time. But sometimes you can learn a lot by sitting back and listening.
Kalinin’s offer to meet up slipped my mind as other stuff took precedent. A few weeks went by. That @RussianEmbassyC account popped back into my DMs. “Got time to meet up this week?” Kalinin wrote.
A day later, we had a date to grab pints at the Clocktower Pub in Beechwood, a neighborhood lousy with diplomatic staff and not far from the Russian embassy. In my memory, I showed up early and scouted the room for Russian assets ahead of time. (In reality, I was probably late and wouldn’t have noticed a spy in that middling English pub if I tripped over them.)
We had a perfectly pleasant evening. Kalinin had enrolled in Canadian studies at university in Moscow, before coming to Ottawa in 2007. He was pretty familiar with the lay of the land. He lived in the capital with his family, and seemed to genuinely enjoy the country. We got on great and agreed on nothing.
Kalinin, for example, wanted me to know that it was Ukrainian ultra-nationalist snipers who had shot unarmed civilians in Maiden Square.
I snorted. That particular bit of Russian disinformation had proved incredibly sticky. Moscow has always advanced the narrative that the 2014 Euromaidan protests were a false flag — a Western intelligence operation to overthrow the legitimate government of Ukraine. We know, however, that incumbent President Viktor Yanukovich was a lousy thief, a puppet of Vladimir Putin, and an adapt master of, what was then, a broken electoral system. He was well on the way to turning Ukraine into an autocratic Russian client state when he was deposed in those popular protests.
But these ghost snipers are one bit of uncertainty that the Moscow disinformation operation has always been able to exploit — because, the fact is, we have no firm evidence of who fired the shots that killed. All we really know is that, in the chaos of those protests and the heavy-handed police crackdown, more than 100 people were killed by gunfire over just a week in mid-February, 2014. About half died on the same day, February 20. That was, arguably, the last gasp of the ancien regime. Yanukovich fled days later.
Yanukovich’s security apparatus had been loyal until his flight — many disappeared when he did. They had motive: When corrupt regimes face a mob looking for freedom, opening fire tends to be a measure of last resort. They had opportunity: In fact, a number of those police officers have been identified as the likely shooters. A forensic investigation from Evelyn Nefertari, a Ukrainian graduate student, details of which were published in the New York Times, tends to back up that theory. The Daily Beast has published photos of some of the likely killers: Pro-regime forces trained in Russia. УНИАН has reported that Yanukovich gave the order to shoot.
I go through this history to point out how considerable the evidence is against this false flag theory. For every bit of evidence I referenced, Kalinin dodged — the shots came from opposition-controlled buildings, he said. There’s evidence, he insisted. Video evidence.
Some of that evidence, I’m sure, came from Ivan Katchanovski, a professor at the University of Ottawa. He penned what is, at least according to Katchanovski himself, the only academic paper addressing this question. Although it was never peer-reviewed, and it was rejected from at least one major journal.
Katchanovski claims that his research proves that the killings “involved the far right and oligarchic parties, and it was a key element of the violent overthrow of the corrupt and oligarchic but democratically elected government in Ukraine.”
He specifically singles out far-right paramilitary group Right Sector, ultra-nationalist party Svoboda, and pro-European party Fatherland — all favorite boogeymen for Russia.
“This mass killing was a successful false flag operation, which was organized and conducted by elements of the Maidan leadership and concealed armed groups in order to win the asymmetric conflict during the ‘Euromaidan’ and seize power in Ukraine,” he writes.
Katchanovski’s paper has been widely available for eight years, and yet it has not been confirmed or replicated by any other academic or expert in any substantive way. The little attention it received from other scholars has been negative. Why? Because it’s an absolute mess. Some of his evidence is the testimony from the Ukrainian security forces who, we know, were firing on civilians. At other points, he suggests that Georgian mercenaries were hired by the protesters to shoot the protesters based on little more than hearsay. Much of the paper is disparate, sometimes unreliable, data points strung together by Katchanovski’s narrative that the whole protest movement was illegitimate.
But Russia and their boosters loved it. It received heaps of praise in Russia Today, which claimed it was being “censored.” Even Putin referenced the absurd Georgian mercenaries tale in an interview with Oliver Stone — and Stone, in turn, credited Katchanovski.
There’s little doubt that Katchanovski had an influence on Kalinin, too. Or maybe it was the other way around?
At the Clocktower Pub, me and Kalinin went around a few times, and we eventually ended in stalemate. I knew that he knew that this was bullshit. He gave me a cheshire smile.
In the months that followed, we messaged back-and-forth frequently. When wildfires ripped through Alberta, he reached out to say that Russia — notwithstanding the geopolitical tensions with the West — had offered to help. And he didn’t even get too upset when I reported that such an offer was likely little more than propaganda. Later, he shared the letter the Trudeau government sent, politely declining the request.
When Ottawa attempted a diplomatic reset with Russia, under the absurd guise of “responsible conviction,” Kalinin told me that Ottawa had quietly reopened communications channels with the embassy.
We traded messages in the fall of 2016, when Russian-backed hackers leaked a huge trove of emails from the Democratic National Committee. “Who else is there to blame apart from us?” He wrote.
I know I wasn’t the only one Kalinin was messaging. When he sent me a link to a recently-set-up homepage for the hacking collective Fancybear, he admitted he sent it to another journalist. (Who, I know, treated the relationship with as much skepticism as I did.)
In early 2017, Trudeau dumped the feckless Dion and replaced him with Chrystia Freeland — who had been sanctioned by Russia since 2014. I pinged Kalinin for more details about it. The sanctions against her will remain until Ottawa dropped its sanctions on Moscow, he said. “She completely detests us as a country.”
I rolled my eyes and didn’t reply. He followed up: “Advice: Dig deep into the family story of hers. Everybody mentions her Ukrainian heritage but there is a very interesting piece on her maternal grandfather.”
He attached a screenshot of a records collection at the Alberta archives. It was a box of documents about Michael Chomiak, Freeland’s grandfather. I brushed it aside and asked more pressing questions about the 21st century. He followed up with more links about Chomiak.
“What about someone asks her a question about her grandfather and his dealings with Nazis back in the day?” Kalinin asked me.
I’ll give you the condensed history: Chomiak was a journalist and editor who ran Ukrainian nationalist newspaper Krakivs'ki Visti in Nazi-occupied Ukraine. He worked with the Nazi censors while under occupation. His paper ran vile anti-semitism while he was editor. Some have accused him of being an enthusiastic collaborator, others have suggested he was actively working for anti-Nazi forces during that time — but there’s no strong evidence either way.
I made some calls on it, out of curiosity, but came to the conclusion that this was not news. The descendants of those who lived and worked under Nazi occupation should be no more distrusted than the grandkids of Joseph Stalin’s apparatchiks. I told Kalinin as much.
Kalinin first sent me the material on January 11. Just over a week later, the story — basically as Kalinin told it — appeared on the blog of John Helmer, an Australian who has lived and worked in Moscow since it was in the USSR. “VICTIM OR AGGRESSOR – CHRYSTIA FREELAND’S FAMILY RECORD FOR NAZI WAR PROFITEERING, AND MURDER OF THE CRACOW JEWS,” the headline (literally) screamed.
And I clearly wasn’t the only one who Kalinin was lobbying. Bob Fife, Ottawa bureau chief for the Globe & Mail, asked Freeland in the foyer of the House of Commons why the Russian embassy was raising so much fuss about her grandfather. She situated the effort in a broader Russian information campaign.
“Justin, I didn't agree to this,” Kalinin wrote to me after it went live.
“Sorry, Kirill, but you can't shop me a story without taking some responsibility for it,” I wrote back.
We argued for awhile about the story, but ultimately we both gave up. Weeks later, he sent an article from Venezuelan state broadcaster Telesur, featuring an interview with a pair of Communist Party of Canada activists who claimed they had done that research to out Chomiak. Russia had been scapegoated, the broadcaster declared.
Inescapable, though, was the fact that Kalinin was hawking the story to me a week before any other person online had noticed it. (Kalinin pointed out that a Polish blog ran a small article about Krakivs'ki Visti earlier that month, but it didn’t mention Chomiak or Freeland.) Either someone gave it to the embassy, and the embassy worked to pitch the story to journalists; the embassy went into those classified archives that Kalinin had touted to me a year earlier and got dug up some opposition research on the new foreign minister; or it’s all a big coincidence. There’s no doubt that he had succeeded in making the story bigger than it would have been otherwise. The one question by Fife — even if caveated with the fact that it was a Russian smear job — sparked international attention and some overwrought takes by the pro-Russian left.
Either way, Kalinin’s boosting of the story would turn out to be a miscalculation.
Kalinin continued sending me links and stories in the months that followed, and we grabbed pints again later in 2017. The meeting was pleasant, but I was certainly more guarded than the first time we met.
In early 2018, Ottawa had startling news: It was expelling a batch of Russian embassy staff who had been implicated in an information operation to attack Freeland.
I asked Kalinin if he was being booted. “I don't have the list yet, I don't know.”
I followed up a week later. The reply came: “Due to our press-secretary expulsion for professionally doing his job, this position remains effectively vacant.” Kalinin had been sent back to Moscow.
Ottawa’s retaliation only provoked more absurd headlines.
“Was the Russian Embassy’s press secretary expelled from Canada for telling the embarrassing truth?” writer David Climenhaga proclaimed. “Sure sounds that way!”
I messaged Kalinin on his personal account a few months after his expulsion. “All is well, back at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs,” he wrote back. “Moscow is absolutely amazing.” He recounted his rushed departure from Ottawa: Boarding a Lufthansa flight with his young daughter, just yanked out of school, and his nine-month pregnant wife.
We caught up. He was even gracious enough to submit to a fact-check for a long feature I had written about Russian meddling. As part of the story, I climbed the narrow stairs into a Russian Orthodox bookstore near the University of Toronto — listed as the headquarters for the Russian Congress of Canada, an organization with all the hallmarks of a Russian front group. I retraced the flow of that story about Chomiak, and traced the pro-Russian disinformation outlets that helped propel it. I flew to Kyiv to interview local activists and officials who had participated in the Euromaidan, and walked through Independence Square, where those Ukrainians had been gunned down for demanding democracy — only to have their sacrifice bastardized by those Russian propagandists.
Last January, as Russia amassed tanks and artillery battery along the Ukrainian border, I asked him his thoughts. “Nobody wants war,” he wrote, stressing they were his personal thoughts. “There's no media hype here in Russia about going to war, everyone wants peace.”
A month later, President Vladimir Putin announced the commencement of a “special military operation” to “demilitarize and denazify” Ukraine. In the first hours of the war, his missiles hit the Jewish mecca of Uman, murdering a civilian in the street. A few days later, strikes hit the Babyn Yar Holocaust memorial in Kyiv.
I don’t know what goes on in Kirill Kalinin’s head any more than I know what Michael Chomiak thought, editing a paper under Nazi censors.
I do know that genocidal regimes only work when they have people running the machinery — good people, bad people, it doesn’t matter. I imagine many convince themselves they are on the side of angels, others do it for the money, some do it out of national pride or public service. Many are perfectly pleasant people to have a beer with.
They are, right or wrong, doing their jobs.
But what will never cease to amaze me is our endless appetite, willingness, and excitement to be played. The willingness of people here, in the West, to be so naive as to think that these hostile foreign powers are our friends.
Whether it is Russia, China, North Korea, or Iran: They are states made up of real people. A lot of people like Kalinin. They are also in a geopolitical competition to weaken us for their own gain. Whenever we decide to take their propaganda at face value, we’re scoring on our own team.
That’s it for this week.
A huge thank you to everyone who chimed in on last week’s chat. As they know, I’ve been furiously trying to finish a big report on the nature of polarization in Canada — which prevented me from getting a newsletter out last week. I hope to be fully back on track by next week.
This is a free post, but there’ll be more paying subscriber-only in the coming weeks. Last month, I penned a very in-depth piece about polarization and anxiety that I recommend, if you’re looking for a sign of what $6-a-month gets you. (Also, it finances my ability to spend time on whole newsletter!)
Also on the Russia file: I wrote a deep dive for Foreign Policy on the Wagner Group’s growing footprint in the Sahel that took me to some very interesting places.
Finally, a little journalism ethics note: Much of the conversations between me and Kalinin that I quote in this story were off implicitly and explicitly off the record. I don’t break those conditions liberally. But the duty of off-the-record is a two-way street. If a source lies in those background communications, they lose the privilege of that anonymity. While you may notice from my tone that I genuinely like Kirill: But I also consider him to be an operative of the Russian state who was exploiting our relationship for the aims of Moscow. So, in this circumstance, I consider breaking those conditions to be warranted.
Until next week!