Putin’s Playing an Old Game

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tags: Russia, Putin, election 2016, Trump, Kompromat

James Stejskal served 35 years as a US Army Special Forces soldier and senior CIA operations officer. He now writes about history, conflict archaeology and unconventional warfare. His latest book is: Special Forces Berlin: Clandestine Cold War Operations of the US Army’s Elite, 1956-1990 (Casemate, 2017).

Vladimir PutinBy MARIAJONER - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0

Former British spy Christopher Steele has disappeared, apparently afraid for his own and his cat’s life. This happened after he was identified as the source of a 35-page dossier alleging the Russians gathered damaging information on Donald Trump. The President-Elect has characterized Steele as a failed ex-Secret Intelligence Service (MI-6) officer. Steele’s former colleagues don’t agree.

But what is in the report and why would the Russians want to discredit Donald Trump? If the alleged scandalous behavior is true, it reflects a classic Russian method to compromise and neutralize political enemies called Kompromat, actually two words smashed together that mean compromising material. Kompromat is blackmail. When Americans think of blackmail, things like criminals and big payoffs come to mind. And usually the FBI. In this case, all three seem to be involved.

Kompromat is a more gentle method than the euphemistically described mokroye delo or “wet work,” which usually involves poison, as in the case of former FSB officer Alexander Litvinenko who was exposed to deadly Polonium, or guns, as with journalist Anna Politkovskaya who was shot in the vestibule of her apartment building, Both were thorns in the side of the Kremlin.

But until now, Americans haven’t imagined it in presidential politics. Vladimir Putin, however, has. He has used it to discredit and remove troublesome journalists, government officials, and opposition politicians. Russian insiders say the security services collect information on everyone who could be of potential use and foreigners are not excluded.

But Trump says it isn’t true and apparently the Russians agree with him. He texted that it’s all “FAKE NEWS” and “Russia says nothing exists.”

Indeed, why would Putin be interested in compromising a man he allegedly likes? Especially after Democratic candidate and Putin’s arch-nemesis, Hillary Clinton, lost? If we believe the Russians wanted the Republican candidate to win, then it stands to reason that claims the Russians collected information on him are absurd.

Then again, maybe not. Trump had dealings with Russia before and he has always been a very large and lucrative target. Anyone who has traveled to the Soviet Union or Russia knows that once they entered the country they were subject to surveillance if it was worth the KGB’s or FSB’s effort. The Russians might ask the question, “Is this person valuable to us now or could he be in the future?” If so, certain measures would be taken. Often it would involve another woman or, in select cases, a man, a “Honey Trap” in intelligence parlance. Then the materials would be ready for release to the public if needed later. Joseph Alsop, a gay American journalist, was targeted in 1956. When confronted and asked to “help” the KGB, he reported the approach to the embassy and hurriedly left the Soviet Union.

Sometimes, if the target was actually an ethical person, the “material” would simply be faked. Americans who were a problem for the Kremlin have been targeted before. In 2009 Kyle Hatcher, an employee of the U.S. Embassy in Moscow was ensnared by a supposed honey trap. The material doesn’t need to be true, it just needs to plant a sliver of doubt to be effective. Trump already knows how well that works.

Back to the question, “Why Trump?”

The answer would be political warfare. Putin’s Russia is currently involved in subverting the Ukraine, supporting a dictator in Syria, threatening the Baltic States, and attempting to derail the reunification of Cyprus. At the same time, Russia is actively trying to influence upcoming European elections in Sweden, France and Germany.

Through active measures like the DNC hack and the mere intimation of the “Trump dossier’s” damaging information, Putin has already sown discord and disarray into the American political system. What better way to ensure Russia achieves its goals than to hamstring the United States and NATO? If Trump and his team should prove difficult to manage, Putin might need an ace in the hole.

The question should be “Why would Putin not want something on Trump?”

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