In the early days after the fall of the Soviet Union, a newly independent Russia strove to become an American-style democracy.
Twenty-five years later, it’s the U.S. political system that is starting to resemble the Russian one.
Modern Russian politics are a realm where voters struggle to discern truth from disinformation (dezinformatsiya), and an aspiring politician’s future depends on what kind of compromising material (kompromat) exists about them.
You may as well write those words down, and practice pronouncing them. Dezinformatsiya and kompromat are part of Western politics now, too, particularly after Tuesday’s publication of a salacious U.S. intelligence brief about Russia’s alleged possession of kompromat involving U.S. president-elect Donald Trump.
Two questions hang above the others (once some of us are finished looking up the terms involved in what Twitter wits are euphemistically calling “watersports”) following the controversial publication of the document by the BuzzFeed news website.
Does the Kremlin really have kompromat about the incoming president of the United States?
And why – if the intelligence was reliable and, in the most startling case, gathered as far back as June – are we hearing about this now, after the election is over, and fewer than 10 days before Mr. Trump is to be inaugurated?
That’s where the possibility of dezinformatsiya comes in.
Regarding the first question, the scariest part is that much of what’s in the leaked report – entitled “Republican candidate Donald Trump’s activities in Russia and compromising relationship with the Kremlin” – is that it lies within the realm of the believable.
Rich Western businessmen regularly misbehave in Moscow, a city – a little like Las Vegas – where it can feel like the usual rules of behaviour don’t apply. Mr. Trump, it seems fair to say, is an incautious man. Russia’s FSB security service would only be doing its job to keep tabs on what Mr. Trump did in front of their cameras (which are apparently placed in all the main rooms of the local Ritz-Carlton hotel, where both Mr. Trump and outgoing President Barack Obama have apparently stayed), and to keep any kompromat for the day it’s most useful.
Russia’s denials on Tuesday – Vladimir Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov, who is named in the report as controlling a separate FSB dossier about Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton, called the report “pulp fiction” and denied that the Kremlin collects compromising information on anyone – do nothing to aid Mr. Trump’s defence. Kompromat is a fact of life in Russian politics (and business), as Mikhail Kasyanov, a former Russian prime minister whose attempt to challenge Mr. Putin was blunted by a sex video that ended up on state-controlled television, and many, many others can attest.
And that’s just addressing one allegation among many in the 25 pages of memos that are now on the Internet. The rest, involving a long-term FSB effort to “cultivate” the real estate-tycoon-turned-politician (via “sweetener” real estate deals – apparently rejected – that were connected to Russia’s hosting of the 2018 soccer World Cup), and co-operation between Moscow and the Trump camp on the hacking and publication of e-mails that damaged Ms. Clinton are also possible, though far from proven. That’s where the dezinformatsiya comes in.
Rumours that the FSB had kompromat on Mr. Trump have been floating around Moscow for some time. A couple of sources whispered similar stories to me – albeit involving different peccadilloes than the ones that made it into the intelligence brief – when I last visited the Russian capital, in November.
I regarded them as barroom tales – a guess at answering “why does Trump feel the need to keep stating his admiration for Vladimir Putin?” – but no more. They were certainly unsuitable for media publication unless some proof of Mr. Trump’s alleged misbehaviour emerged.
Several other media outlets claim to have been in possession of the intelligence brief long before BuzzFeed published it, but decided the material was unverifiable.
The intelligence brief suggests the CIA was aware last summer that at least some of its sources in Moscow believed the Kremlin possessed kompromat involving Mr. Trump. Yet despite the obvious implications, there’s no suggestion – until this week – that the material was forwarded to the FBI for investigation.
That’s almost certainly because it contains almost nothing in the way of hard evidence. The allegations about what the memo calls “Trump’s personal obsessions and sexual perversions” that played out in the presidential suite of the Moscow Ritz-Carlton some time in 2013 are attributed to a character named only as “Source D,” and confirmed by “Source E.”
Source D is tantalizingly identified as “a close associate of Trump who had organized and managed his recent trips to Moscow,” while the description of Source E’s connection to the file was blacked out by an unknown party before the document was uploaded by BuzzFeed.
CNN reported Tuesday that the memos about Mr. Trump’s Russian connections were drafted by a former British intelligence operative “whose past work U.S. intelligence officials consider credible.” It’s possible that the ex-MI6 officer is the only person who knows for sure who Source D and Source E really are, and thus how believable their stories are.
That, of course, is the nature of intelligence gathering. But it’s important to consider that the ex-spy, at the time he was conducting the research, was in the employ of first a Republican opponent of Mr. Trump, then a client allied with Ms. Clinton’s Democrats. His agenda was not to safeguard the U.S. national interest, but to dig up material that could be used to damage Mr. Trump.
That’s happening only now, meaning Mr. Trump’s Republican and Democrat opponents sat on this material during the election campaign, even after years of listening to Mr. Trump propagate wild and sometimes nonsensical allegations about Ms. Clinton and Mr. Obama.
So, if it’s too late to stop Mr. Trump from being sworn in, who benefits from this last-minute dump of lewd and apocryphal material about the president-elect?
Mr. Trump – a long-time critic of the CIA who has already declared his intent to reform and downsize U.S. intelligence services – had no problem pointing the finger at them. “Intelligence agencies should never have allowed this fake news to ‘leak’ into the public. One last shot at me. Are we living in Nazi Germany?” he posted on Twitter. (Another feature of Russian politics is a fondness for conspiracy theories, as well as comparing almost everything to the Nazis.)
Bizarrely, Mr. Trump pointed to the Kremlin denial as proof he had done nothing wrong. “Russia just said the unverified report paid for by political opponents is ‘A COMPLETE AND TOTAL FABRICATION, UTTER NONSENSE,’ ” he tweeted.
But what if all of it – the denial, even the leak itself – is part of the dezinformatsiya?
Many believe the real aim of the Kremlin’s efforts was not to install Mr. Trump (the brief suggests some Russian officials viewed him as unstable and “unsuitable for high office”), but to sow chaos in the election, and thus to diminish the appeal of the U.S. and its democracy abroad.
As we sift through the kompromat and the dezinformatsiya, one thing is very clear: U.S. democracy has never looked more chaotic or unappealing than it does right now.Report Typo/Error