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25 May 2022

“There is a serious vacuum in the Kremlin. It can’t last” Christopher Steele on Ukraine and Putin

The former spy and author of the Trump-Russia dossier talks Londongrad oligarchs, Ukraine and the vulnerability of Vladimir Putin.

By Jeremy Cliffe

The meeting is at a London restaurant, smart but neither grand nor flashy, and quiet but for a few tourists and a couple of parents with prams in the corner. A man with silver hair and of average height appears at the door and makes his way over. The only feature that might make the former spy, Christopher Steele, stand out from the crowds of besuited commuters on the concourse at nearby Victoria Station is his lapel badge, bearing the flags of the UK and Ukraine. I have been asked to find somewhere discreet, so am sat at a table towards the back of the room. If our encounter sounds cloak-and-dagger, it is not – or at least, it is much less cloak-and-dagger than it would have been a few years ago.

Steele joined the UK’s Secret Intelligence Service (SIS, popularly known as MI6) after graduating from Cambridge University in 1986, and was soon posted under diplomatic cover to Moscow, where he saw the decrepit Soviet order give way to the chaotic Boris Yeltsin presidency. A posting in Paris was followed by a senior job on the SIS Russia desk from 2006 to 2009. He then set up his own firm, Orbis Business Intelligence, in the barely less secretive world of non-state spying. “It was always in the shadows,” Steele tells me of his former existence. “We were never the story, I was never the story.” 

That all changed in 2016. Orbis had been contracted in June by a private investigative firm working for Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign to research links between Donald Trump and the Russian government. The series of reports that it produced alleged both a Russian conspiracy to help Trump win the November election and Russian possession of kompromat, or compromising personal information, on the Republican candidate. What would later be called the “Steele Dossier” was swiftly shared around Washington DC, even landing on Barack Obama’s desk in December 2016. Steele initially remained anonymous. No image of him existed in the public domain. But on 10 January 2017 Buzzfeed published the dossier in full, attributing it to a British former intelligence agent. The next day the Wall Street Journal named Steele, and he and his family went into hiding. Two months later he re-emerged to give a short, terse statement on camera outside what was then the Orbis office in London.

[See also: Britain is running out of allies as it squares up to Russia – on Steele’s Trump-Russia dossier]

Five years on, Steele tells me that his life has changed “entirely”. “Now I am a public figure and defined as such legally in the US, which has its advantages and disadvantages.” The political scandal unleashed by the dossier would later intertwine with calls for Trump’s impeachment and Robert Mueller’s report into Russian interference in the 2016 election. Unsurprisingly, Trump rounded on Steele, tweeting of the dossier: “Fake news – a total political witch hunt!” Steele is still of interest to John Durham, a special investigator for the US Department of Justice who was appointed by William Barr, Trump’s politicised attorney general, to investigate the origins of the FBI probe into Russian interference.

“It’s stressful and difficult, particularly for family members,” Steele says. I ask about how he has changed his security arrangements. “To some extent, given my previous life, it’s a matter of degree rather than kind, but we have to be careful about how we go about our business.” Steele has not travelled to the US since 2016 – on personal security and legal advice – and Orbis recently moved to a new London office without a publicly listed address.

Still, he concedes that the spotlight also has its upsides. “It gives me a platform. I can have influence on policy debates in a way I wouldn’t have done before.” In October 2021, Steele gave his first major TV interview, telling ABC’s George Stephanopoulos: “I stand by the work we did, the sources that we had.” Sitting down with the New Statesman marks his first on-the-record interview with the British print media, in which we go beyond the endlessly parsed dossier to survey current events in Russia, Ukraine and beyond.

We start with the man at the centre of it all. What are the chances that Vladimir Putin will still be in power in 12 months? “I think they are slight,” replies Steele. “There is now a serious vacuum in the Kremlin in terms of command and control. I don’t think it can last a lot longer. I think it is worse than anyone has dared to express, in terms of the collapse of governance in Russia.”

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Steele says that Putin is seriously ill: “quite possibly a cancer and also Parkinson’s disease”. This vacuum means the Russian president is both micromanaging the war and cut off from its realities: “Even Hitler’s generals and field marshals would tell him the truth about what was happening on the battlefield. That has not happened in this war. Russian soldiers in Ukraine don’t know what they are up against. They don’t know the weapons systems they are up against. They don’t know the tactics that they are supposed to be using. They don’t know what their objectives are. Half the time it changes from day to day. You cannot conduct an efficient military campaign on that basis.”

Steele then sets out how the vacuum could be filled: events on the battlefield in Ukraine, sanctions and international isolation combined with Putin’s failing health could open a window in the coming months for another senior figure to move against the Russian president. “There is a sense of who has got the potential power resources to do it and they are very few. The two mentioned are Alexander Bortnikov and Nikolai Patrushev,” he says, naming the hard-line current and former head of the Federal Security Service (FSB), Russia’s main security agency. “Not Sergey Naryshkin?” I ask him –referring to the director of the Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR) who previously called for more dialogue with the West. “No. Probably sadly,” he replies. Valery Gerasimov, the chief of the general staff of the Russian Armed Forces, “has disappeared”, Steele says. “He hasn’t been seen in Moscow for at least a week.”

The ex-spy sees Putin’s defenestration happening in one of two ways. “One is that they go to Putin and offer him the sort of deal that Putin offered Yeltsin and his family, and that Putin accepts that deal because he is too ill to do otherwise. Or he refuses and there is bloodshed, as there was when Stalin died and Beria tried to take over.” Any such bloodshed, he clarifies, would probably take place within the Kremlin walls. “You don’t see it turning into some sort of civil war?” I ask. “I wouldn’t think a large-scale civil war, but I wouldn’t rule anything out,” Steele replies: “Russia is like one of its famous silver birch trees – with a shiny strong bark, but as soon as you drill into it it’s full of woodworm.”

I ask if it is fair to say that little information about the war in Ukraine has filtered down to the Russian people. “I think that’s charitable, to be honest,” he counters. Steele reckons that Russian casualties in Ukraine (“probably north of 20,000 dead and 50,000 to 60,000 injured”) will gradually percolate through society back at home. Moreover, “my belief is that significant strata of the Russian population support this war and are ­sufficiently brutalised and brutal to condone the methods that are being used… Of course there are incredibly brave, capable people who are opposed to the war but I think it is a mistake to think everyone in Russia has been hoodwinked by official propaganda”.

We turn to the trajectory of the war. Steele reports that the Ukrainians believe fighting will continue intensively until about September, followed by a longer low-level conflict. Russia could lose the whole of the Donbas region if its forces continue to struggle and may even concede it in a post-Putin deal, he adds. The sticking point would be Crimea – occupied by Russia since 2014 – where neither side would be likely to budge.

[See also: Europe’s new Iron Lady: Estonian prime minister Kaja Kallas]

How much store can we set by Steele’s brand of intelligence gathering? Certain details in his Trump dossier have been disproven and he has conceded it is not 100 per cent accurate (he has told friends the figure is about 70-90 per cent). Fiona Hill, a respected Russia expert at the Brookings Institution, has called it a “rabbit hole” and has suggested it includes planted Russian disinformation – a possibility Steele has accepted but considers unlikely.

We do, however, know two things for sure. The first is that Steele is a serious and well-connected authority on Russia and Ukraine. He has a reputation in intelligence circles for being cautious (“sober”, “professional” and “conservative” says an associate quoted in the journalist Luke Harding’s book Collusion). US intelligence officials are known to have rated Steele’s past work and he overwhelmingly uses sources who have proven their accuracy before. He says frankly whenever I ask a question that he believes he cannot answer authoritatively, and gently declines my occasional invitations to indulge in speculation.

The second is that intelligence is not a black-and-white business: some details may be vague or sketchy and others firm, with assessments often drawing on multiple sources with a range of degrees of confidence. In our conversation, Steele is meticulous in differentiating between possibilities and certainties, contingent analysis and concrete fact, assessment and speculation. A reasonable approach, then, is to keep in mind that intelligence – and especially the sort of raw intelligence that appears in the dossier – is an art and not a science. 

I move on to Russian influence operations. Does the war and its fallout hamper them? Steele distinguishes between the “front door” (overt influence methods such as the propaganda broadcast media RT and Sputnik) and the “back door” (surreptitious influence-buying through political parties and other institutions, blackmail and other methods.) “While, laudably, the UK government has shut the front door on Russia it still hasn’t shut the back door,” says Steele. “There is still a refusal by Boris Johnson and people at the top of the Conservative Party to think that the money that has come into the party from foreign-based sources is not clean, and that refusal to reassess what has been going on is not good.” He calls for a UK equivalent to the US Foreign Agent Registration Act, and a law criminalising proxy activity on behalf of sanctioned individuals.

Steele is not alleging some grand, all-encompassing conspiracy. He sees Londongrad – the now-notorious nexus of Russian oligarchical power and British politics – as a two-way process whereby rich Russians in the UK have accumulated influence that they use to their advantage back in Moscow. “It isn’t just that these people are all ordered to do certain things in Britain by the Kremlin, but they are conscious that the better placed they are in Britain, the more influence currency they have to trade back home.” He cites prominent Russians with links to the Conservative Party as examples not of a plot but of how, voluntarily, Britain has left both its front and back doors open – with the latter remaining ajar even now.

Darker forms of influence also prevail. “Are you aware of attempts to use kompromat in the UK in the same fashion as what you set out in the Trump dossier?” I ask Steele. “Yes,” he replies, with a bluntness that catches me off-guard. “People have done bad things in the past and [the Kremlin] is aware, and the Russians will subtly remind them of that from time to time… Look at policy issues that have been playing out over the past few years. The lack of this legislation I’m talking about, why the Russia report [by the Intelligence and Security Committee, into Russian influence in British politics] was suppressed, why its recommendations haven’t been implemented, and so on. That isn’t just coincidence.” 

Later, he adds the UK’s failure adequately to arm and train the Ukrainian military between 2014 (when Russia first occupied parts of the country) and 2021 to a list of policy decisions seemingly shaped by Russian influence. “I have heard that there were people arguing strongly against doing this [arming Ukraine from 2014 onwards] and they were probably under the influence of agents from Moscow.” “In British government?” I ask him. “Yes. Or in and around the British establishment and elite.” It is a striking accusation, and I return to it later in the conversation: “To your knowledge, was kompromat part of that story?” Steele pauses, and I sense he is mulling what to share in his reply. “Certainly, kompromat is in play.”

[See also: Michael Flynn’s involvement with Russia suggests he has an interesting story to tell]

What might Russia now be seeking to achieve through its influence operations? Steele says that “anything that divides Britain from its natural democratic allies” is beneficial to Moscow. “You can even argue that things spinning around trade or Brexit can be used in that way… Stirring up the French over the [Aukus] submarine deal is unhelpful in terms of Western unity. It’s quite clear that Boris Johnson’s relationship with Emmanuel Macron is poor. His relationship with Joe Biden isn’t great, particularly because of the Irish situation. All this plays into Russia’s hands.”

And more widely? The former spy identifies two major international areas where Russia is operating. The first is that the Kremlin is using its blockade of Ukrainian ports on the Black Sea to cause a crisis of food, grain and fertiliser exports. “In 2010-11 one of the reasons why you had the Arab Spring was a bad harvest in Russia and Ukraine. There was nothing conscious about it. The bad harvest pushed up the price of grain in places such as Egypt and Syria. So the Russians have already seen how it can play out. But this time it’s an artificial problem.” He identifies Egypt and Ethiopia as two countries where Russia is particularly keen to sow turmoil, to disrupt Western security interests and perhaps even trigger a new migration crisis on Europe’s borders. 

“Russia is probably working hard at the moment in Turkey, [which is] a powerful player in this situation because it controls the Bosphorus.” The two topics are, of course, related: “In order to overcome this Russian manipulation of the grain and fertiliser markets, all [Turkey’s leaders] need to say is: ‘Unless you lift these sieges on [Ukraine’s] ports, none of your ships are coming through the Bosphorus either.’ That would soon turn it around.”

Then there’s the country where Steele’s past work has had the greatest impact: the US. There he expects new influence operations to be aimed at the midterm elections in November and, perhaps, the 2024 presidential election, with the goal of creating an “isolationist, mercantilist” US. “Are you aware of any ongoing links between the Trump team and Russian interests?” I ask him. “It depends how widely you define the Trump team.” 

Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump hold a bilateral meeting at the G20 summit in Hamburg, 7 July 2017. Photo by Reuters / Carlos Barria

Steele is convinced that a second Trump term would mean “the end of democracy in the US as we know it”. He draws on three examples to detail how this would look. The domestic example is 2020-21, the final year of Trump’s first term, when he broke loose from institutional constraints and appointed acolytes and political henchmen to roles in defence and intelligence. “I think the rule of law would start to collapse and the worry is that the Supreme Court justices [appointed] by him would go along with it.” The international examples are South Africa’s apartheid-era National Party (“which believed that the rights of democracy and the rights of rule of law only apply to a certain part of the population”) and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s Turkey (“where the executive would have a huge amount of power to conduct political vendettas”).

“I think liberal democracy in the US today is under a bigger threat than it has been in at least 100 years,” Steele concludes – just in case I had not already got the message.

I switch off my Dictaphone and we chat about Steele’s decision to give the interview. I ask him if the recently set up @Chris_D_Steele Twitter account is him. He confirms it is, but says he has not yet received the blue tick that indicates an account’s author has been verified, because he does not conform to an established category (politician, official, journalist or similar) and has not yet got enough followers to be otherwise accredited. 

The predicament captures something of the hybrid nature of his new life. Steele is both a private figure with one foot in his secret world, and a public one with the other in the limelight. His public role is multifarious: a businessman and former official, but also a man with firm opinions as a citizen and a politico. He is passionate about his subjects, clearly enjoys debating them (he was president of the Cambridge Union) and holds his own distinct views (presciently hawkish on Russia, and broadly progressive). “It’s quite instructive because, of course, being at the centre of [the firestorm about the dossier] you are the only one that knows the full truth and so you can see how these people are all nibbling around it but never quite get there,” he says. Nibbling around the truth is a neat image for the role of an intelligence officer – and perhaps, in fact, for all of us in an age of social media, news saturation, disinformation and seemingly ever-faster flows of events. 

Steele has painted an alarming picture of escalating global disorder: war, coups, violence, famine, political manipulation, espionage and crisis. It occurs to me that if there is a personality who somehow sums up this time of international breakdown (however inadvertently) it is perhaps Christopher Steele himself. Half in the shadows, half on Twitter; concerned but clear-eyed about the storms on the horizon; a shaper and subject of great-power conflict; a dealer in data, in information, and a prognosticator of the global crises to come; the personified zeitgeist of our era of transformation and turmoil.

[See also: The strange allure of the strongman leader]

Correction: The phrase “failure to arm and train the Ukrainian military” should have contained the word “adequately”. This has been corrected.

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This article appears in the 25 May 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Out of Control