An uncompromising tool: The power of Russia's 'kompromat'

Its apparent impact on US politics may well mean the use of similar tactics in key European elections this year

"I have never seen anything like this in my lifetime," former Central Intelligence Agency director Leon Panetta recently told journalists, visibly shaken.

For good reason, since never before has a president-elect of the United States chosen to publicly belittle his country's own intelligence community by dismissing its unanimous findings that Russian agents interfered with America's electoral process. 

And never before was an incoming president forced to spend the last few days before his inauguration denying accusations that his alleged sexual and financial escapades may have been recorded by Russian spies and could be used to blackmail him at a future date. 

But the fact remains that most of the allegations about Russia's intelligence activities conform to a known pattern; the only surprise is that some high-ranking American officials appear to have been genuinely surprised by them. And, having been successful in the US, there is every reason to expect the Russians to use similar interference techniques in key European elections later this year.

Interfering in foreign elections is something in which both Russians and Americans are experts.  The US did it in Latin America from the 19th century, and it is by now largely forgotten that the Cold War started in the 1940s precisely because then Soviet leader Josef Stalin falsified elections in Eastern Europe to produce communist regimes through the simple expedient of controlling the procedures. As he famously said: "It doesn't matter how people vote; it matters who counts." 

Russian President Vladimir Putin remains convinced that the US tried to unseat him in 2011, when he faced a wave of protests during an electoral campaign.

Wee Kheng Soon, then a cypher clerk at the Singapore Embassy in Moscow, was convicted in 1980 for betraying secrets to the Russians after being entrapped in kompromat.
Wee Kheng Soon, then a cypher clerk at the Singapore Embassy in Moscow, was convicted in 1980 for betraying secrets to the Russians after being entrapped in kompromat. ST FILE PHOTO

And US President Barack Obama touted his decision not to interfere in Iran's elections in 2009 as proof that the US could be Iran's friend. Yet what his gesture really implied is that the US had both the means and inclination to intervene in another country's elections.

The fact that America's intelligence chiefs were astounded to discover that Russia was prepared to do the same inside the US is merely a reflection of Washington's instinctive belief that the US is unique when, in fact, it is not.

The same applies to the realisation that US politicians may have been subjected to another longstanding Russian intelligence technique - that of the kompromat, of collecting incriminating information on potential targets. 

Sometimes, the objective of the kompromat is merely to pressure journalists into being nice to Russia. On other occasions, the objective is to recruit spies by targeting foreign officials and diplomats, and often those of smaller countries; this gives the Russians a more effective "back-door" entry into the world of the Western and Western-allied intelligence community. 

That was, spectacularly, the case of Wee Kheng Soon, a then 30-year-old cypher clerk at the Singapore Embassy in Moscow, who was arrested and convicted in 1980 for betraying  secrets to the Russians. Wee was entrapped in a classic kompromat by a Russian woman, a "swallow" as Russia's KGB termed the "intelligent, good-looking and short on skirts". To tighten the noose around Wee, the Russians also allowed him to engage in the smuggling of Russian works of art; the mixture of money and sex invariably works best.

As a result, Wee betrayed all the keys of Singapore's diplomatic code; his 10-year jail sentence was probably not longer than the time it took Singapore and its allies to identify, isolate and eliminate the damage he has wrought.

But the most significant form of kompromat is that of collecting compromising information on key politicians. There is no evidence at this point for the lurid sexual allegations made about Mr Trump's behaviour in a Moscow hotel in 2013. But that no longer matters for, as Professor Alena Ledeneva from London's School of Slavonic and East European Studies argues in her recent book on the topic, kompromat material is at its most powerful when it is unpublished but ready to be used in every eventuality.

That is why Mr Putin has kompromat material on both friends and foes; as Prof Ledeneva puts it, he operates on the principle that "to keep kompromat on enemies is a pleasure, but to keep kompromat on friends is a must".

The Russians had no way of predicting that Mr Trump would become US president; nobody did. Still, a man of Mr Trump's wealth and prominence was bound to attract for years the attention of Russian spooks. Nobody shakes the hand of Mr Putin's chief enforcer Igor Sechin without having a file with the Russian security services. The key question, therefore, is not whether Moscow has a dossier on Mr Trump - it does, and it is probably extensive - but what it contains.

Either way, Mr Putin has already emerged the winner from the US electoral episode.

He has discredited the US electoral system. He has elevated Russia's intelligence services to hero status. And he may know more about Mr Trump than the US President-elect cares to remember.

There is plenty of evidence that Russian spies are now applying the same techniques to key electoral campaigns in France and Germany, both of which will take place later this year.

Mr Hans-Georg Maassen, the head of Germany's domestic intelligence agency, claims a hacker gang known as Sofacy/APT 28 and enjoying "close links to the Russian state" has repeatedly hacked into the computers of the Bundestag, or Parliament, with the objective of collecting compromising material on politicians Moscow does not like.

Meanwhile, a myriad of websites with names such as or are spreading fake news on existing European politicians; a fake story alleging that German Chancellor Angela Merkel personally welcomed a refugee who then turned into a terrorist became an instant hit and is directly traceable to sources in Moscow.

Until the US election, European governments used to treat such episodes as mere nuisances, pinpricks of little consequence. No longer, however. "Defending the integrity of our elections has already become a daily task for my government," Dr Merkel said recently.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 16, 2017, with the headline 'An uncompromising tool: The power of Russia's 'kompromat''. Print Edition | Subscribe