The facts as laid out in the newly unsealed plea agreement between special counsel Robert S. Mueller III and George Papadopoulos, a former foreign policy adviser to President Trump’s campaign, do not provide a slam-dunk case that the Trump team was colluding with the Russian government. But to a former CIA officer like me, everything Papadopoulos admitted in the plea deal looks consistent with the modus operandi of the Russian intelligence services engaged in an “active measures” covert operation. So what might the Russians have been up to with Papadopoulos?
Since late last year, when the U.S. intelligence community issued a formal assessment on Russian involvement in the campaign, it is clear that the Russian government was intent on influencing the outcome of the election on Trump’s behalf. Trump had already stated policy positions that were much more favorable to Russia than Hillary Clinton or the Obama administration’s stances — he had questioned NATO’s relevance, played down Russia’s annexation of Crimea, contemplated reviewing Western sanctions on Russia and so forth. So helping Trump would be a reasonable Russian covert action goal. Over the past months, several elements of this wide-ranging operation have emerged, such as the extensive use of propaganda from Russian-sponsored news media (for example, RT and Sputnik) and the manipulation of social media platforms such as Facebook, Google and Twitter in an attempt to influence U.S. voters. The Russian hacking of Democratic National Committee computer servers — and the subsequent release of thousands of stolen emails — has raised the specter of even more involved Russian cyber operations, and it is still not entirely clear how far the Russians may have gotten into actual voting machines and voter registrations databases at the state level.
And with Monday’s news, we now have greater clarity on yet another part of the Russian operation: how a Trump foreign policy aide was lured into contact with Moscow. The Papadopoulos indictment tells a story containing several elements consistent with how Russian intelligence (and in this case, most likely the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service, the SVR) operates. According to the indictment, Papadopoulos was living in London when an as-yet-unidentified professor there became interested in Papadopoulos after learning that he had a foreign policy role in Trump’s campaign. Papadopoulos, in turn, became interested in the professor’s claimed Moscow contacts, and the two apparently communicated substantially in pursuit of this mutual interest.
The use of a professor — not a Russian government official; that would come later — as first a spotter and later an intermediary to Moscow makes operational sense from the perspective of Russian intelligence. Clearly Papadopoulos, in his role as a foreign policy adviser, had access to information of interest to the Russians, making an approach to him worthwhile. As an added advantage, he was outside the United States, further away from the prying eyes of the FBI. Using a professor as a cutout to gain access to Papadopoulos would have increased the aide’s comfort level and minimized the chance of scaring him away from contact. As it turned out, though, the cutout wasn’t necessary to gain the target’s trust: Papadopoulos wasn’t worried at all about the prospect of meeting with Russian operatives.
Next, the professor offered Papadopoulos concrete contacts in Moscow, specifically with the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA), as well as with an unidentified woman with senior contacts in the Kremlin. This is consistent with the incremental approach to a relationship like this that Russian intelligence typically favors. Having made Papadopoulos comfortable with a cutout in an overseas environment, the Russians then tried to lay the groundwork for contact with actual members of the Russian government. Russian intelligence often uses the MFA as cover for its work, which underscores the importance of the meeting Papadopoulos was offered with the ministry. The official story for such a meeting would have plausible deniability, another earmark of a good Russian operation: The topic of any meetings between the Trump campaign and the MFA could simply be how to get a head-start on planning for improvement of the U.S.-Russia relationship after the election.
The proposal of contact with the unidentified Russian woman — who Papadopoulos later told investigators he initially thought was a niece of Putin’s — was a further escalation of the operation. The MFA is an official entity, but this unidentified woman with nebulous but important contacts inside Moscow power structures is a bit more shadowy and covert in nature. Meeting with an official Russian diplomatic entity has at least the patina of normalcy; candidates and aides do sometimes meet with foreign officials during campaigns. Contrast that to meeting with a woman whose identity and position are not clear but who is promised to be of consequence in Moscow. The scenario now starts to become sketchier. But the Russians may have already assessed by then that Papadopoulos would be intrigued rather than spooked. Perhaps intelligence officials believed or hoped Papadopoulos was moving up in the Trump campaign, given that he contacted more senior members of the campaign several times offering to arrange the meetings.
Up until early April 2016, the ostensible purpose of the contacts proposed by Papadopoulos was simply to establish an initial relationship with Russian officials to improve relations between the countries. But by late April, the Russians took the next step in the operation by offering “dirt” on Clinton — dirt in the form of stolen emails, even though news of the DNC hack wouldn’t become public for several more months. If Russian intelligence officers were worried that taking this step brought increased risk — which any intelligence professional would be trained to consider — they needn’t have been concerned. Again, Papadopoulos continued to advocate for Trump campaign officials to meet with the Russians well after hearing the offer of derogatory information on Clinton. Indeed, in June, Papadopoulos indicated he would be happy to make an “off the record” trip to meet the Russians himself. According to his plea agreement, Papadopoulos’s still-unidentified supervisor in the campaign replied, “I would encourage you (to) … make the trip, if it is feasible.”
All that may not add up to legal proof. But from a counterintelligence standpoint, a sound case can be made that the identification and slow courting of Papadopoulos by the Russians, initially using a professor with Russian government contacts to arrange foreign policy meetings, then later morphing into a mechanism to share damaging information on Clinton, was part of Russia’s larger 2016 operation. However, like most good Russian operations, this one built a strong element of deniability into the construct. The Russian government can easily say that it did have contact with some members of candidate Trump’s foreign policy team, but only in support of future foreign policy planning; if their past statements are any guide, they will label any other analysis as American “Russophobia” or Cold War-era thinking. They will simply deny any claim that Russia was trying to pass Clinton “dirt” to the Trump campaign.
Russians will of course denounce all of this new information as conspiracy theories. The Russian government knows that Americans believe strongly in such Western values as hearing out all sides of an argument, trying to be fair to all sides and telling the truth. Russia takes great advantage of this, and will inevitably try to sow doubt and cast aspersions. We never interfere with the internal affairs of other countries, least of all the United States, Russian officials will say. More fabrication on the part of the U.S. press, unfairly targeting Russia, state-owned media will crow. Great umbrage and offense will be taken by Russian officials, who will continue to demand the respect that a great power deserves. Americans should remember that all of that is also part of the Russians’ active measures operation against us, and that there is probably more to come.