In 1999, Russia’s prosecutor general — the rough equivalent of a U.S. attorney general — vowed to investigate corruption allegations involving the family of then-President Boris Yeltsin.
Then a funny thing happened. Russian TV began showing grainy video footage of the prosecutor, Yuri Skuratov, cavorting in the nude with two young women. Some observers expressed skepticism that the man in the video was actually Skuratov. But any doubts were put to rest by the head of Russia’s internal security service, who declared that his agency’s experts had confirmed the prosecutor’s identity. The man who made the statement was Vladimir Putin, and his words sealed Skuratov’s political fate. The corruption probe faded away, and a few months later a grateful Yeltsin appointed Putin to the office of prime minister, and later as his own successor.
Blackmail exists everywhere, of course. But nowhere else has it become such a prominent part of political life as in post-Soviet Russia. In the wild 1990s, the gray men of the old KGB sold their talents to the highest bidders, and plenty were willing to bid: newly minted millionaires, would-be politicians, mobsters. Countless private security services competed to see who could produce the dirtiest dirt, and journalists — another feature of a strange new world of turbulent freedom — were happy to publish what they dug up.
Putin learned well. As president he soon cracked down on both the freelance spies and the journalists, but he never forgot his early lessons about the uses of kompromat, from the Russian for “compromising material.” Discrediting an enemy, he realized, can be far more effective than throwing them in jail, so the culture of kompromat has continued to thrive under his rule — though it’s now primarily deployed in the services of the Russian state.
A liberal political rival wants to be president? Have the evening news show an interview with members of a gay club singing his praises (a great way to discredit him in the eyes of a homophobic public). A billionaire oligarch challenges your power? Dig into his seamy financial dealings and share them with muckrakers. An elderly dissident criticizes you from the safety of British exile? Have your hackers covertly plant child pornography on his computer and notify the relevant authorities. As these examples show, kompromat is best viewed as a form of information warfare, sometimes true, sometimes not. More often it’s an artful mixture — all the better to intimidate and confuse.
Donald Trump actually seems to know all this quite well. During his extraordinary news conference Wednesday, he claimed to be well aware of the particular risks of operating in Putin territory. “I was in Russia, years ago, with the Miss Universe contest, which did very well,” he said. “Moscow, the Moscow area. Did very, very well. And I told many people, ‘Be careful. Because you don’t wanna see yourself on television. Cameras all over the place.’” He hastened to add, though, that he doesn’t really see Russia as exceptional in that respect.
If he knows the place so well, though, he must realize that, when it comes to the business of blackmail and intimidation, Russia is indeed in a class of its own. Only Moscow has transformed the principle of kompromat into a major component of its foreign policy. Europeans both East and West witness daily how the Kremlin deploys information against the people and institutions it wants to destroy or control. In places such as Sweden and the Czech Republic, Moscow operates dozens of websites purveying conspiracy theories and falsified news, all aimed at discrediting its myriad enemies. The Russian hand has made itself felt in the outcomes of last year’s British vote to leave the E.U. and a Dutch referendum on relations with Ukraine. No other country has been doing anything like this on a comparable scale.
Meanwhile, for more than a decade now, Russian hackers have been staging attacks on infrastructure and websites in European countries that are at odds with the Kremlin. The recipe in each case may differ, but the objective is always the same: to weaken Western institutions, such as NATO and the E.U., that are capable of offering a united front against Russian designs. This strategy should tell you everything you need to know about Putin’s plans and the nature of the system that he runs.
When the news of alleged Russian hacks on computers of the Democratic National Committee and Hillary Clinton’s campaign team broke last year, it fit surprisingly neatly into the same pattern. In some cases the hackers stole and revealed true information that cast Clinton and her supporters in the most unflattering possible light. Meanwhile, though, Moscow’s news outlets also made a point of spreading patently false stories about her and her campaign that were gleefully picked up and repeated by Trump and other members of his team.
Did Trump not know what he was doing? Did he think those reports were true?
I doubt it. I think he understood the provenance of these stories perfectly well — just as I think he always understood that Moscow was behind the Clinton hacks, notwithstanding his many disclaimers. Wednesday in his news conference, he was finally compelled to admit it: “As far as hacking, I think it was Russia.”
It’s good to see him come around. But if this is indeed what Trump believes, why does he continue to preach the need for a friendlier relationship with Russia? Is a government that operates the way that Putin’s does — spreading lies in the shadows — really the one that you want as an ally? One can’t help but wonder.