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12 January 2017updated 09 Sep 2021 2:38pm

What is “kompromat” and how does it work?

The Russian art of blackmail has historically been used as an effective political weapon.

By Richard Maher

When the heads of America’s intelligence agencies informed President-elect Donald J. Trump last week that Russia might have collected compromising personal material on him, the possibility was raised that he could be a victim of a time-honored Russian intelligence tactic known as “kompromat.”

The explosive allegations contained in an unverified and salacious  report prepared by a former British intelligence operative as opposition political research against Trump, have now been made public. The allegations remain unverified, and without corroboration from someone inside Putin’s inner circle, their veracity is unlikely to ever be proven.

The accusations contained in the report, published in full by Buzzfeed, are extraordinary. They include allegations that  the Russian government has been “cultivating, supporting, and assisting Trump for at least five years,” and that Russian spies exploited the president-elect’s “personal obsessions and sexual perversion” to gather compromising material. According to the report, Russian intelligence has sufficient material on Trump to blackmail him but have agreed not to use it as leverage due to the “high levels of voluntary co-operation forthcoming from his team.”

The Kremlin has denied the claim it has kompromat — a Russian word literally meaning “compromising material” — on Trump. According to the New York Times, a spokesperson for the Russian Foreign Ministry called the accusations that Russia has collected material on the president-elect that it could use for political leverage against him “mind-boggling nonsense” and “outrageous drivel.”  At a press conference on Wednesday, Trump also denied the claims and denounced publication of the allegations as “fake news.”

Kompromat has become a part of the political culture in Russia. Nearly everyone within Russia’s business and political elite has at one time or another collected and stored potentially compromising material on their political opponents for future use. Kompromat can be real or fabricated, and generally involves drugs, prostitutes, sexual escapades, sleazy business deals, illicit financial schemes, or embezzlement.

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During the Cold War, the use of kompromat was a favoured tactic by the KGB. Hotel rooms across the Soviet Union were bugged and fitted with tiny cameras to surreptitiously record illicit dalliances between western politicians, journalists, businessmen and KGB-hired prostitutes.

More recently, Russian intelligence and political officials have used kompromat to settle scores or to discredit government critics. Kompromat thrived in the 1990s during the presidency of Boris Yeltsin. After the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union, thousands of intelligence personnel suddenly found themselves without a job. Skilled in information warfare and looking for work, they offered their expertise in political blackmail and character assassination to anyone who could pay.

In 1999, Yury Skuratov, at the time Russia’s prosecutor general, was the victim of kompromat after he started investigating corruption inside the Kremlin. He was forced to resign after a grainy tape featuring a man resembling Skuratov in bed with two prostitutes was broadcast on national television. The head of the FSB, the successor to the KGB, held a press conference claiming that the man caught on tape was indeed Skuratov. The FSB chief at the time just happened to be the now President Vladimir Putin. With Skuratov’s resignation, the corruption investigation ended.

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While kompromat is an old trick, it has taken on a different and at times more sinister twist in the cyberspace age. To silence and discredit opponents, Russian cyber warriors have planted child pornography on the computers of Kremlin critics. Cyber attacks have become a favored political weapon to use against government opponents. They are hard to trace, giving the Kremlin plausible deniability.

Kompromat can be an effective political weapon. Faced with the destruction of their lives, marriages, reputations, and careers, victims often have little choice but to capitulate to blackmail and intimidation.

If Russia did actually have kompromat against Trump, would it use it? The United States and its Western allies no doubt have their own compromising material on members of the Kremlin’s inner circle and perhaps even on Putin himself, such as the scope of his financial and business interests in Russia and the size of his personal fortune.

Perhaps we are entering an era of “Mutually Assured Kompromat Destruction,” and we will never learn what, if anything, the Kremlin has on Trump.

Richard Maher is a research fellow at the Robert Schuman Centre for Advanced Studies