Russia and the art of 'kompromat'
- 14 January 2017
- From the section Europe
Every Russian knows what "kompromat" means. Now, thanks to a graphic section of the unverified intelligence dossier on Donald Trump, the rest of the world does, too.
Since the allegations were made public, the US president-elect has denied claims that he cavorted in Russia with prostitutes - and Russian officials have denied claims that they filmed it.
This week, a spokesman for Russian President Vladimir Putin told me that "the Kremlin does not collect kompromat".
But someone in Russia clearly does. And the sensational results periodically surface, either via the compliant state media or via the internet.
Sex as a weapon
Last spring was a case in point.
A state-controlled TV channel, NTV, ran footage of former Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov in bed with his personal assistant, Natalia Pelevina. Not only was the material cringe-worthily intimate, it also revealed the couple bad-mouthing other members of Russia's notoriously divided opposition.
The tape helped divide them even further.
"It was shot inside a private apartment by the [Russian security service] FSB, there is no doubt about it," Ms Pelevina told the BBC, referring to what happened as an "obvious smear campaign".
There is no evidence that America's president-elect was ever caught in a similar way. But Ms Pelevina argues that her own experience suggests that such an idea is not implausible.
"I would not rule out that the Russian FSB has something against Donald Trump. Because they collect those materials not just against enemies; they collect against so-called friends. Just in case it will come in handy one day," she said.
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Some argue that the FSB had no reason to ensnare Mr Trump before his presidential ambitions were public.
"What would have been the point?" Frederick Forsyth, a spy author who worked for MI6 for 20 years, asked on BBC Radio 4's Today programme on Friday.
"I don't think there's any indication that the man who was host of the game show Apprentice and builder of hotels was ever going to be anything important in the political world," he said.
But a former Russian intelligence agent dismissed that logic.
"Donald Trump was never just anyone. He was always a well-known businessman, not just a tourist," the former operative, who asked not to be named, pointed out.
"You call it 'kompromat', but it's just information. Everyone does it. You British gathered it on [Mikhail] Gorbachev, we gathered it on [Margaret] Thatcher. So theoretically, yes, it's possible," he said.
If Russian agents did gather such information, he said, then it would be no surprise that it got out.
"You can't be surprised by anything anymore, after Edward Snowden and after Wikileaks," the ex-agent said.
That is one reason why many Russians are unfazed by the allegations. Another is that they have seen it all before.
Targets of kompromat
The most notorious victim of kompromat was Yury Skuratov. The then-prosecutor general was investigating claims of corruption in the Kremlin in the late 1990s when Russian TV aired a video entitled Three in a Bed.
The grainy footage, which ended his career, showed a man resembling Mr Skuratov in bed with two women. The tape's authenticity was confirmed publicly by none other than Mr Putin, then head of the FSB.
Then there was Mumu. In 2010, the part-time model befriended opposition activists and journalists and lured them back to her flat. Their sexual activities and drug-taking were all captured on hidden cameras. The films were then posted on the internet.
And the technique has been turned on foreign targets, too.
The British deputy consul-general in Yekaterinburg was forced to step down in 2009 after footage allegedly showing his own sexual encounter with two prostitutes was made public.
The UK Foreign Office declined to comment at the time, only stating that it expected "high levels of personal and professional integrity" from its staff.
The list goes on and the FSB is always cited as the prime suspect.
The big difference with the claims of kompromat against Mr Trump is, of course, that his alleged video tape has not been made public.