he Kremlin has dismissed the stories about Donald Trump’s alleged dealings with Russia as “pulp fiction”. Even a superficial glance at the dossier on his relationship with Moscow supposedly compiled by a former M16 counter-intelligence officer and published by BuzzFeed reveals a confusion that raises questions about its credibility at the very least.
For example, the FSB unit named as responsible for gathering material on Hillary Clinton – Department K – has nothing to do with eavesdropping or cyber investigations. It was, however, much in the Russian news recently because it was tasked with “supervising” the banking and financing system and its officers were involved in a major scandal that ended with an Interior Ministry official jumping out of a window during interrogation. There is another Department K in the Interior Ministry and it is this that is in charge of cyber investigations. The dossier names Igor Diveikin, a senior official in the political department of Putin’s office, as tasked to deal with the US election. He was indeed in charge of elections, but in Russia, not the US. Last October, a month before the US elections, he was moved to the apparatus of the state Duma.
Beyond the factual detail, there are problems too with the document’s analysis: as in a classic conspiracy, Putin’s decisions in 2016 to fire prominent officials, including the all-powerful Sergei Ivanov, a head of the presidential administration, are explained via the ups and downs of Russia’s interference in the American election.
But Putin had plenty of other reasons to start selective repressive acts against his elites – 2016 was also a year of the Duma elections and there is palpable anxiety in Moscow about the presidential elections in 2018. There are big questions too about the sources: high-placed Kremlin officials seem a little too keen to talk to a former British spy, and feed him damaging information about the most sensitive Kremlin operation in the 21st century – right in the middle of the operation.
Though many of the report’s elements appear hastily compiled, overall it reflects accurately the way decision-making in the Kremlin looks to close observers. There’s been much focus on the shakier elements but what is plausible about this episode? The leaked document paints a picture of groups of hackers all over the world hired to attack western targets. And that sounds about right. I have been covering the Russian secret services since 1999 and have spent the last five years researching Russian cyber activities. Outsourcing sensitive offensive operations is the Kremlin’s way to lower risk and create deniable responsibility. It was used in Crimea, Ukraine and Syria with Russian “volunteers” and private military companies, while in cyberspace it has been the Kremlin tactic since the mid-2000s.
The dossier suggests that Putin personally supervised the operation, with the Foreign Ministry playing only a minor role. This is exactly what has been observed since the annexation of Crimea – that the Foreign Ministry is no longer in charge of defining policy for Ukraine or Syria, so decision-making is likely to be more capricious. It also fits with the assessment of many experts that the hack of the US Democrats was prompted by the Panama Papers exposé, which was seen in the Kremlin as a personal attack on Putin.
Finally, the dossier states that the Kremlin extensively borrowed its methods for dealing with Trump from the KGB playbook. For instance, it claims the Russian secret services were eager to collect dirt on Trump during his trips to Russia to explore whether a recruitment was feasible. The evidence is questionable, but the idea looks entirely plausible – after all, the KGB even had a special terminology for this kind of operation: it was called razvedka s territorii or “gathering intelligence from the territory”, meaning recruiting foreigners once they come to Russia. For that purpose every regional department of the KGB had a “first section” tasked to deal with foreigners once they get to the “territory” of the region, and Putin himself spent a few years in this section in St Petersburg.
The goal, the dossier states, was to create kompromat on Trump. And kompromat, meaning compromising material, as a tactic to smear one’s opponents in the media, came into use in Russia in the late 1990s. It was a mix of intercepted phone calls and analytical profiles prepared by the oligarchs’ shadowy security agencies and government security services. In the 2000s and 2010s, kompromat was redirected against Russian opposition leaders, as well as western diplomats. Videos with kompromat were aired on state television and posted on the websites of pro-Kremlin media outlets.
Unverifiable sensational details aside, the Trump dossier is a good reflection of how things are run in the Kremlin – the mess at the level of decision-making and increasingly the outsourcing of operations, combined with methods borrowed from the KGB and the secret services of the lawless 1990s. That is not the picture projected by the Kremlin externally – namely, that the Russian government is an effective bureaucracy, strategic in foreign policy planning and ruthless in execution. And that, whatever the truth of Putin’s connections with Trump, makes it all pretty scary.
Published in The Guardian, January 16, 2017