Despite claims to the contrary, Russia's intelligence agencies have a documented history of compromising material
“No, the Kremlin does not have kompromat on Trump,” was what Dmitry Peskov, spokesman for Russian President Vladimir Putin, told CNN as the story broke earlier this week about unsubstantiated claims made by Buzzfeed. The online media giant had published a story saying that both Barack Obama and Donald Trump had been briefed with a two-page document alleging that Russia had collected material that would be damaging to the new Republican president’s reputation and that Putin could potentially attempt to leverage this in his bilateral dealings with a White House that has already declared itself his friend.
But what is kompromat? In short, it is a Russian term that harkens back to the days before the Cold War, referring to a KGB-supported policy of gathering or creating dirt and scandal that can be used to destroy someone professionally or personally. Often, though not exclusively, the information was of a sexual nature, with kompromat a portmanteau of the words for compromising material. It also works as a pun in Russia, where ‘mat’ has a second meaning, linked to profanity.
If not sexual, designated ‘private’ in the four content pillars of the scheme, then a person under observation could expect to be compromised through political, economic or criminal means. Foreign diplomats based in the USSR were trained to understand that they were constantly being watched, their private conversations recorded and analysed for signs of any kind of weakness or perversion ripe for exploitation. In some cases, entirely falsified documents would be used to blackmail and coerce, and while spy novels love of the so-called honey trap as a narrative device may antiquated, for KGB agents they were ruthlessly effective.
A mainstay of the espionage and counter-espionage heyday of the Cold War, since the fall of the Soviet Union kompromat has become central in the battlegrounds of power in contemporary Russia’s oligarchies; in 1999, entirely unannounced and unexpected, Russia’s top prosecutor, Yuri Skuratov, appeared in a video on the evening news with two naked young women. That Skuratov was in the process of launching an investigation into corruption at the Kremlin made him a target, and it was Vladimir Putin, then head of Russia’s FSB security service, who announced the prosecutor’s identity at a press conference.
Within months, President Boris Yeltsin, so impressed with Putin’s work, named the former spy as the country’s new prime minister. A few months after that and Putin had taken the top office himself.
Despite the BBC claiming a second source has confirmed that Russia has gathered material on the new American president, Trump has strongly denied any reports during a spectacular press conference on Wednesday. These claims were backed up by the Kremlin’s official statement. What is clear, however, is that even Trump has acknowledged the cyber warfare raging amongst the world’s superpowers, with disinformation, hacking, and fake news the new tools in global instability. All of the US intelligence services have pointed the finger at Russia for hacking the Democratic Party to hinder Hillary Clinton during her fraught presidential campaign.
Russia continues to deny it, while Trump essentially told the press gathered around him earlier this week that everyone is hacking everyone. It seems that the only certainty in 2017 is that we are entering a period of absolute uncertainty.