The use of kompromat, roughly analogous to “blackmail file,” is integral to Russian political culture:
In U.S. political campaigns, we have opposition research or digging up dirt — or kompromat — on rival candidates, but the goal is always to bring the material to light in order to damage the opposing candidate and help your candidate win. The material gets released.
In the former Soviet states, where the legacy of the KGB is still very strong, kompromat is systematically collected and held in trust as a way to exert influence and control over people, particularly members of the political elite. It is rare that the material is actually released. Instead, information about illegal activities is collected by the security services, by private entities, and used to control people through blackmail.
The logic is simple: If you know that “the services” have a file on you, with information that could get you arrested or destroy your career, you are not very likely to step out of line politically. You might find yourself asked to perform favors for the people who hold that information.
In post-Soviet societies where you previously had extensive domestic spying and surveillance operations, and corruption is widespread, the use of blackmail is systematic and is one of the bases for maintaining political control. This is why when you see a member of the elite — like Mikhail Khodorkovsky in Russia or Yulia Tymoshenko in Ukraine — mount a political challenge, it suddenly comes to light that they cheated on their taxes, embezzled funds or committed some other crime that warrants their arrest.
The widespread use of kompromat as a way to keep the elite of a society under control is why in the past I have referred to some of the post-Soviet states — and Ukraine in particular — as “blackmail states.” I had a laugh this morning when I read that the former head of the FSB, Russia’s KGB successor organization, said that they are not in the business of collecting kompromat. It is their stock in trade. It is the tradecraft of most intelligence services.
Just about every Russian oligarch and politician collects kompromat on each each other, such as evidence of ethical, legal, or sexual misconduct — real or fabricated — that is often leveraged in negotiations, sold on the black market, or employed for political control. Russian journalists, and even some of the public, accept this as a normal part of Russian political life.
Kompromat has been a favored technique of the KGB, and the power wielded by former-KGB officers in Russia might explain why Russia is a “blackmail state” today. Unsurprisingly, former KGB officer Vladimir Putin is no stranger to the use of kompromat:
Out of nowhere, a shocking video appeared on a Russian TV news program late one evening in March 1999. A surveillance tape showed a naked, middle-aged man who resembled Russia’s top prosecutor, Yuri Skuratov, cavorting with two unclothed young women. Neither was his wife.
The ensuing scandal included a press conference by the head of Russia’s FSB security service at the time, Vladimir Putin, who made clear it was Skuratov in the video.
Skuratov soon lost his job, not to mention his dignity.
President Boris Yeltsin was apparently impressed with Putin’s handling of this episode. Yeltsin wanted to get rid of Skuratov, who was believed to be looking into Kremlin corruption. Several months after the video surfaced, Yeltsin named Putin to be prime minister, and a few months after that, Putin took over as president.
The documentary “Putin’s Way” gives some insight into how Putin thinks of kompromat for political control. Putin’s regime encourages corruption among wealthy oligarchs, particularly if it involves a mutually beneficial deal. Putin doesn’t want them to behave, he wants loyalty:
But patronage is only one aspect of the tandem that underpins the stability of the Kremlin; the other is coercion. Supporters are kept in line through an implicit threat to throw them in jail and to seize their assets should their loyalty be called into question. The ability to provide financial incentives — through the acceptance of dubious business practices — acquires their support, the threat of jail and repossessing their assets ensures it. A silent agreement between Putin and business elites was reached in the aftermath of Yukos CEO Mikhail Khodorkovsky being thrown into jail in 2003 for attempting to challenge Putin politically (Khodorkovsky was also charged with additional money laundering and fraud charges in 2010 as he was nearing the end of his first sentence). As William Partlett of Columbia University and the Brooking’s Institute said about the incident, “The message to other oligarchs was clear: follow the rules or face devastating legal consequences.”
Putin’s selective application of the Russian legal system is effectively kompromat on a country-wide scale. He has created an understanding among the Russian elite: stay loyal to Putin and reap the rewards, but step out of line and you will be punished. The promise of financial gain from practices of questionable legality is a hook to keep Russia’s oligarchs locked into this system of control.
This is not so different from the KGB’s techniques to recruit Americans in the past:
Whether a walk-in or a recruit, once an American begins spying for the Soviet Union it is unlikely he will find it easy to retire.
In testimony before Congress in April, Christopher J. Boyce, who was convicted in 1977 of passing classified information about American satellites to Soviet officers, said, ''There is no exit from it.''
Mr. Boyce described a 1976 meeting in which he told his Soviet contact he was going to retire. ''I told Boris I was going back to school,'' Mr. Boyce said. ''He thought it was a great idea.'' He said his Soviet contact told him to study international relations and then to get a job at the State Department.
''He was looking 10 or 20 years down the road, the same relationship going on and on,'' Mr. Boyce said.
Once an American first commits espionage, Soviet agents act on the vulnerability to blackmail and may attempt to keep the agent working with threats.
''That's par for the course in the intelligence business,'' said David A. Phillips, a former C.I.A. official. ''You don't have so many candidates that you can afford to let them go. This isn't the Boy Scouts.''
Mr. Crowley, who was a C.I.A. assistant deputy director for operations when he retired in 1980, said blackmail could begin after the first contact.
TAPPER: CNN’s Evan Perez has reported that the intelligence community, that the U.S. intelligence community believes that Russia’s ambassador, Sergey Kislyak, is not just an ambassador, but he is a spy and he’s also a spy recruiter. Was that your understanding when you were at the agency?
MCMULLIN: Yes, that is my understanding.
But why it’s significant is that you have somebody with enormous access here in Washington as an ambassador engaging with some of our senior-most officials in Congress and elsewhere who also has the skills that a spy would have to extract important information and to help run covert operations.
And, so, that’s the kind of person we’re dealing with here. It doesn’t mean that all Ambassador Kislyak’s activities are related to espionage, but it means he is a skilled practitioner of that — of such operations.
TAPPER: Of spycraft.
MCMULLIN: That’s right.
TAPPER: Can you give me just a kind of understanding of what that means exactly? He has skills in persuasion, extracting information when people don’t want to give that information? What exactly do you mean?
MCMULLIN: He would have skills in compromising people, first and foremost, so that…
TAPPER: Potentially blackmailing them?
MCMULLIN: Blackmailing, but it’s not just blackmail.
It is not as dramatic as that. It’s about slowly easing people into a situation in which they are revealing information that they shouldn’t reveal, that compromises them, which makes it easier to get additional information and additionally compromise them into the future, until you have something that amounts to a covert operation in which they are working on behalf of you. That’s what his job would be.
A week before a critical EU summit in Vilnius, the Lithuanian capital, that was to be capped by the Brussels-Kiev pact, Yanukovych abruptly pulled out of the deal on Thursday, leaving EU policy in shreds and Putin relishing victory in the contest for Ukraine’s future.
The volte face was a result of Russian blackmail, the Lithuanian president’s office said as senior officials in Brussels said Yanukovych was sacrificing the hopes and wishes of most of his countrymen on the altar of Russian money and contracts.
…“Ukraine could not withstand the economic pressure and blackmail. It was threatened with restricted imports of its goods to Russia, particularly from companies in eastern Ukraine, which accommodates the greater share of its industry and employs hundreds of thousands of people. Calculations suggest this would lead to billions in losses. These causes behind the decision were specified by President Yanukovych in the telephone conversation with the president earlier this week,” Neliupšiene told a Baltic news agency.
Merely becoming economically involved with Russia makes countries vulnerable to a sort of kompromat:
MOSCOW — Russia's state-controlled gas company is halting supplies to Ukraine, its chief executive said Wednesday, less than two months after the two countries struck an EU-sponsored deal.
Gazprom's CEO Alexei Miller said Russia sent the last shipment to Ukraine at 10 a.m. local time on Wednesday and send no more because Ukraine has not paid in advance for future supplies.
…Past gas disputes between Russia and Ukraine have led to cutoffs. One standoff in 2009 caused serious disruptions in shipments EU countries in the dead of winter.
Russia’s supplies to Ukraine recommenced in early October after Gazprom received $234 million out of a promised $500 million prepayment from Kiev. Under the deal, Russia lowered the price it charged Ukraine to the same level granted to neighboring countries, from $251 per 1,000 cubic meters to about $230.
Russia's supplies to Ukraine recommenced in early October after Gazprom received $234 million out of a promised $500 million prepayment from Kiev. Under the deal, Russia lowered the price it charged Ukraine to the same level granted to neighboring countries, from $251 per 1,000 cubic meters to about $230.
The headline “Europe Will Face ‘Catastrophe’ if Russia Cuts Off Gas Supplies” by the Russian state-controlled Sputnik news agency gives a hint to how Putin hopes to use European dependence on Russian gas.
Just as kompromat is his basis for controlling Russia, Putin’s so called “geopolitics of extortion,” targeting individuals and institutions abroad, is said to be an important part of his political warfare against the West:
BAER: Absolutely. Our intelligence people would be able to give you a full briefing on how common Russian tactics are, but my understanding from what I know is that Russian intelligence continues to use a number of methods that are aimed at compromising people either financially or personally and using that to extract the information that they want or the behavior that they want.
Putin, at least so far, has had success using threats, extortion, and blackmail to gain and keep power at home. In a broad sense, his thinking seems to be: if it works at home, why shouldn’t it work abroad?
There is evidence that Putin has already begun collecting and using kompromat in the United States. Shortly after the election, the Russian hacking group Cozy Bear began a wide-ranging hacking campaign targeting U.S. think-tanks. At the time, it was believed the Russian government intended to “get a better understanding on what is going on in Washington after the election.” But a few months later, it was reported that many think-tanks hacked by Cozy Bear have faced extortion attempts:
Russian hackers are targeting U.S. progressive groups in a new wave of attacks, scouring the organizations’ emails for embarrassing details and attempting to extract hush money, according to two people familiar with probes being conducted by the FBI and private security firms.
At least a dozen groups have faced extortion attempts since the U.S. presidential election, said the people, who provided broad outlines of the campaign. The ransom demands are accompanied by samples of sensitive data in the hackers’ possession.
In one case, a non-profit group and a prominent liberal donor discussed how to use grant money to cover some costs for anti-Trump protesters. The identities were not disclosed, and it’s unclear if the protesters were paid.
At least some groups have paid the ransoms even though there is little guarantee the documents won’t be made public anyway. Demands have ranged from about $30,000 to $150,000, payable in untraceable bitcoins, according to one of the people familiar with the probe.
…The hackers’ targeting of left-leaning groups — and the sifting of emails for sensitive or discrediting information — has set off alarms that the attacks could constitute a fresh wave of Russian government meddling in the U.S. political system. The attacks could be designed to look like a criminal caper or they could have the tacit support of Russian intelligence agencies, the people said.
It’s a bad sign that some of these groups have agreed to the ransom demands. As former CIA officer Evan McMullin explained, Russian intelligence recruits assets by slowly guiding targets into more and more compromising situations:
Blackmailing, but it’s not just blackmail.
It is not as dramatic as that. It’s about slowly easing people into a situation in which they are revealing information that they shouldn’t reveal, that compromises them, which makes it easier to get additional information and additionally compromise them into the future, until you have something that amounts to a covert operation in which they are working on behalf of you.
It’s the principle of “the cover-up is worse than the crime” put to practice: any time a target reveals information to a Russian agent that he shouldn’t, pays a Russian agent ransom, or lies to conceal dealings with a Russian agent, that agent gains more kompromat on the target for free, simply by being a knowing party in these interactions. The Russian operative knows you revealed the info, knows paid ransom, and knows you lied. By paying ransom, these organizations have given the Russians proof that they know they did something wrong and want to keep it secret, amplifying the damage if the compromising information were released, and so amplifying the Russians’ leverage over them. If, as the report suggests, the extortionists are working for Putin, then these organizations have amplified Putin’s leverage over them.
Should Putin apply these techniques broadly, it could create serious problems for the West. Russia’s hacking campaign has targeted thousands of individuals and institutions, including financial institutions, banks, oil and gas companies, government and military employees, and high-level political operatives and officials, as well as gained access to billions of personal email accounts. If, as officials worry, the Russians are sifting through their pilfered data for “sensitive or discrediting information,” Putin may gain kompromat on a wide range of some of the most powerful people and institutions in the West.
This blackmail potential might be why, as the FBI Director emphasized, the Russians have been “very noisy” in “their intrusions in different institutions,” “as if they didn’t care that we knew what they were doing or that they wanted us to see what they were doing.” Just as the psychological effect of high-profile assassinations and blackmail keep Putin in control of Russia, his “loud” hacking might let U.S. persons and institutions know that if you cross Putin, you too might be punished.
“Russia’s effort to influence the 2016 US presidential election represented a significant escalation in directness, level of activity, and scope of effort compared to previous operations aimed at US elections,” the report says. “We assess the 2016 influence campaign reflected the Kremlin’s recognition of the worldwide effects that mass disclosures of US Government and other private data — such as those conducted by WikiLeaks and others — have achieved in recent years, and their understanding of the value of orchestrating such disclosures to maximize the impact of compromising information.”
The report concludes that Russia will likely continue to use these tactics to influence elections in the U.S. and other countries, because of the relative lack of damage to Russian interests.
The message from Washington is: Putin can release compromising information about powerful people in what might be the most overt way possible —right in the middle of an American election — and get away with it. As with the think-tanks hacked by Cozy Bear, some people and organizations might decide Russian threats to release their information are credible, and choose to pay ransom, give in to demands, and further compromise themselves.
Other than the aforementioned think-tanks, it’s hard to say which individuals and institutions Putin can successfully blackmail or is currently blackmailing, although there‘s’ plenty of potential. White collar crime, for example, is pervasive enough that authorities feel the criminals are ahead of law enforcement. But, unlike the FBI, Russian hackers don’t need a warrant.
There is circumstantial evidence, at least, of some powerful organizations giving-in to the Kremlin. For example, corporate giants like BP and BASF have lobbied Western governments with warnings that “repercussions” from the Kremlin for sanctions would be more than the West can bear:
Europe’s resolve to impose tough sanctions on Moscow is cracking under corporate lobbying, as companies warn governments that any retaliation from the Kremlin could cost them dearly.
…In Germany, the chemical group BASF has been among leading companies advocating caution. In Italy, the energy company Eni is arguing that Europe, which imports 30 per cent of its gas from Russia’s Gazprom, is no position to impose energy sanctions on Moscow.
BP is at the forefront of a group of companies who have told British MPs and ministers they are at risk if EU governments decide over the next few days to impose economic sanctions on Russia.
British officials have told the Financial Times that BP has warned ministers of possible repercussions if relations with Moscow deteriorate: BP has a 20 per cent stake in Rosneft, the state-controlled oil company.
Although their motivation might be purely profit (as the article suggests), the fact that warnings of Russian retaliation are “cracking” Europe’s resolve shows that Putin’s extortion techniques are already working on a continent-wide scale.
And this illustrates another key point: Putin might need only to compromise a few powerful Western institutions to get the behavior he wants out of the rest. U.S. politicians rely on campaign donations to stay elected, and lobbying by a powerful donor might be enough to get Congress to act in the Kremlin’s interests. Lobbying by the Putin-friendly oil giant ExxonMobil, for example, successfully convinced Congress to kill a bill that would have made it harder to lift Russian sanctions, even at the height of U.S.-Russia tensions.
Political parties and powerful politicians may also be top targets. The threat of “getting primaried” —deliberately supporting a challenger to a Congressional incumbent with the intent of removing them from office — is said to keep politicians in Congress “in line,” lest they act against the wishes of the party (perhaps the United State’s own, friendlier version of Putin’s system of political control). By influencing the politicians who decide who gets “primaried,” Putin could influence the rest of Congress by proxy. We see some evidence of President Trump attempting this in his threats to primary GOP politicians who refuse to vote for his health-care bill. In another example, the GOP changed their party platform to Putin’s benefit at the behest of the Trump campaign (and possibly Trump himself), removing their commitment to provide “lethal assistance” to Ukraine in a move which some party members have defended in Congressional hearings. In an unfortunate case of bad-optics, it was re-confirmed in the same hearing that Russian hackers had breached the RNC.
Powerful military or government officials would likewise be ideal targets for Putin to compromise, especially in the Trump administration. The shady dealings of pro-Russian Trump campaign members like Manafort, Page, Stone, and Flynn could help the Russians compromise even more Americans by drawing the people they interact with into the Russia scandal, essentially acting as one big, compromising Russian “drag-net” through the U.S. political system. Attorney General Sessions’ very public lying under oath about his conversations with Kislyak, in particular, makes him a prime target for blackmail. Sessions can lie, but Kislyak knows that they talked and knows what they talked about.
Finally, there is circumstantial evidence that Putin has already attempted to blackmail the previous administration. Shortly after the failed “Russian reset” and Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, it was reported that Russian hackers had placed a “digital bomb” in the NASDAQ stock exchange that could “bring down the entire structure of the financial system of the United States.” A few months after the DNC leaks, Wikileaks announced it had released it’s “first batch” of Barrack Obama’s emails, and a few months after that, Obama declared that the U.S. has “more to lose” than Russia in a cyber war.
Putin has used country-wide systems of blackmail and coercion to great effect to control Russia and influence Europe. We should consider seriously the threat that Putin will use or has been using the same methods in the United States. Russian leadership has long-expressed a desire to control the United States, and their experience in ruling Russia might lead them to believe creating such a system of coercion in the U.S. would achieve their goals.
It is hoped the United States will begin countering Putin’s influence efforts immediately, especially those that target powerful institutions and individuals. In the short term, one thing the United States can do is expose Putin’s operations wherever they are found. Director Comey made a point of this in the March 20 hearing:
STEFANIK: Looking forward — and this is for both of you — what is the NSA and the FBI doing to keep Americans safe, to keep campaign entities — to keep any entity associated with a major campaign, save from aggressive Russia cyber measures that were utilized in this past election?
COMEY: Yeah, I think that’s right and just making sure that we are sharing information when we get it that someone’s being hit, but more importantly we’re showing people what we’ve learned from this cycle, so they can tighten up.
And it should be noted that the Russians can compromise people and organizations through traditional espionage as well. Depending on the size and depth of infiltration of the illegals program, this method could be more fruitful than blackmail from cyberattacks for exerting control, particularly if enough illegals have made their way into positions of power.
Former CIA counterintelligence director James Angleton and KGB defectors Anatoliy Golitsyn and Yuri Bezmenov believed Russian intelligence’s efforts posed a dire threat to the United States. Like Angleton, Golitsyn believed that, even 30 years ago, it was nearly too late to turn things around. But Golitsyn did offer some advice, which is not so different from Director Comey’s advice:
Pursuit of a realistic foreign policy by the United States has been made even more difficult by the demoralization of their intelligence and counterintelligence services that followed the Watergate exposures and the overblown campaign to restrict the functions of the CIA and FBI. The CIA’s capacity for political action was curtailed and two thousand experienced officers were retired. Particular damage was done to US counterintelligence, whose task it should be to analyze communist policy and tactics, forecast communist intentions, and so help to protect the nation and its intelligence services from communist penetration, subversion, agents of influence, and disinformation.
What, at the eleventh hour, can now be done? With all due diffidence the author feels that his book would not be complete until he has sketched in the direction in which he feels the West should now move. For the sake of brevity the difficulties of accomplishment are brushed aside. The aims are stated baldly and uncompromisingly.
Although time is fast running out, the balance of forces between East and West has not yet tilted irrevocably. It is still possible for the West to recover the initiative and to frustrate the communist strategy to isolate Western Europe, Japan, and the Third World from the United States, but it is a difficult road to travel. The initial lead must be positive, and it must come from the United States.
The logical consequence of the argument of this book, and of the new methodology which it introduces, is that a group of acknowledged American experts should reexamine and reevaluate communist policy, tactics, and strategy of the past twenty years. They should be drawn from the intelligence, counterintelligence, military, and diplomatic services and from the academic world. They should have the support of their heads of services or institutions in providing research facilities and should have access to all information and records relating to communist state and party affairs since the 1950s. Their report should define the communist long-range strategy, predict its course of action, estimate its time scale, assess the political strength of the communist bloc and the subversive potential of the communist movement, expose communist disinformation, and estimate the extent and impact of communist penetration of, and agents of influence within, the United States and other governments.
Having set in train its own fact-finding and mind-clearing exercise, the United States should then seek to inspire a revival of allied unity on a new basis. Since the provocation of division and friction between member nations of the Western alliance is one of the prime objectives of communist long-range strategy, it is essential that all Western governments and their peoples should have a clear understanding of that strategy, and of the disinformation which supports it, before any other remedial measures can become effective. That is why reassessment of the threat comes first. Ideally each major Western country should, like the United States, set up its own commission of inquiry into communist policy, tactics, and strategy as reflected in its own intelligence, counterintelligence, military intelligence, and diplomatic records of the past twenty years.
To counter communist strategy and regain the initiative for the West, a new Western strategy is needed, based on a true understanding of the situation, policy, and strategic disinformation of the communist bloc. Without a clear appreciation of the deceptive nature of Sino-Soviet rivalry and of “liberalization” and splits in the communist world, Western governments, whatever their political complexion, cannot recover from the crisis in their foreign policy and are at risk of sliding into false alliances with one communist state against another. If possible, a moratorium should be imposed on any form of rapprochement with any member of the communist bloc while the reevaluation takes place. The publication could then follow of an allied defense document setting out calmly and clearly the agreed overall Western assessment of current communist bloc policy and the means being used to implement it. Public discussion of the findings would be encouraged by conferences of the Western governments, of political groupings such as the Socialist International, and of the leaders of the moderate, pro-Western Third World nations; parallel professional exchanges would take place between the Western intelligence and counterintelligence services.
The effect that an expose on this scale would have should not be underestimated. The communist bloc leaders and strategists would find, if the Western assessment were correct, that their next strategic offensives and moves in the deception plan had been preempted. The initiative would have been snatched from them. Their complicated political, diplomatic, and disinformation operations still in the pipeline would, if pursued, confirm the correctness of the Western assessment. The peoples of the communist bloc, the majority learning for the first time of the deceit on which their country’s policy had been based, would — whatever their feelings about its morality — realize that it would not work in the future and that their leaders had failed. While a communist regime remains successful, the people can be coerced into going along with it. It is when failure — or, at least, lack of new successes — sets in that, as was shown in Hungary and Poland in 1956, real and radical changes may happen. Exposure of a bankrupt policy would unleash powerful political pressures on communist leaders and on their regimes, parties, and governments, perhaps forcing them to change their conduct in international relations.
It is hoped our government takes this to heart, and does everything they can to investigate and publicly expose Russia’s plans and operations, lest the rest of our institutions fall into Putin’s net.