For this year’s Thanksgiving Day feature, The Cipher Brief revisits its coverage of the Kremlin’s strategic use of blackmail to silence dissent at home and undermine opposition abroad. Known in Russian intelligence lexicon as kompromat, or compromising material, blackmail has long played the role of leveraging personal information for political gain. But with the advent of the internet, the tactic has far reaching implications.
Using what is known as kompromat – a contraction of the phrase “compromising materials” – Russia intertwines modern media and methods of intimidation that ring of Soviet-era tactics. While widespread influence operations using social and other media exacerbate the West’s societal divisions, targeted blackmail and clandestine character assassination campaigns also capitalize on the global reach of modern cyberspace. Information is power, and personal information is sometimes the most powerful of all.
- The goal of kompromat is to smear reputations of political opponents to discredit their voices, intimidate and pressure would-be critics through personal and salacious images, videos and documents – both real and doctored – with threats of disclosure for those that don’t fall in line, and send a message of deterrence to anyone considering getting in the Kremlin’s way.
- Moscow leverages Russian-sponsored media when distributing kompromat: both traditional outlets such as RT and Sputnik – and even unwitting foreign media – and social media through Kremlin-paid trolling organizations such as the Internet Research Agency.
- Kompromat only needs to create a sense of doubt – or rather the mere possibility of truth – to have the desired effects. There is no need, or even necessarily a desire, to prove the salacious claims.
- If operations fail to undermine or coerce those targeted, they are merely left by the wayside with little to no blowback for the perpetrators, as kompromat is often nonattributable or at the very least, plausibly deniable.
Different than disinformation campaigns that muddy political waters, kompromat tactics target personal vulnerabilities and capitalize on the most visceral aspects of humanity, with sex and pornography featuring prominently. Should targets fail to comply with the Kremlin’s wishes, Russian operatives weaponize the material by publishing it to undermine credibility, ruin reputations and destroy personal lives.
- Russian intelligence officials might clandestinely lure foreign intelligence target with promise of sexual exploits to hotels bugged with video cameras – a form of recruitment entrapment known as a “honey pot” in intelligence jargon.
- While other intelligence services might offer money or promises of freedom or asylum to would-be spies, Russian intelligence often seeks to coerce foreign intelligence officials, military officers, diplomats and prominent businessmen into engaging in espionage on the Kremlin’s behalf by holding kompromat over their heads.
Kompromat is used not only to coerce those with access to sensitive information to share secrets – it is also employed to silence dissent and undercut political influence, both at home and abroad. Multiple critics of the regime have lost their followers’ faith after the release of embarrassing information – both real and doctored – or demonstrations of corrupt or criminal behavior “equivalent” to that of Russia.
- Domestically, the Kremlin uses kompromat to silence critics without the political blowback of high-profile arrests or headline catching assassinations.
- In 1999, Putin, as then head of the Russian intelligence service, the Federal Security Service or FSB, reportedly assisted former Russian president Boris Yeltsin to discredit a prosecutor, Yuri Skuratov, after he threatened to reveal government corruption by publically stating that the individual in a published sex tape was Skuratov.
- Both British and American diplomats involved in human rights work in Moscow have been filmed allegedly compromising themselves – though evidence indicates the videos were fabricated.
- In 2010, multiple prominent Russian opposition journalists and politicians were separately filmed in salacious situations with the same woman.
- In the fall of 2016, a video appeared online, featuring Mikhail Kasyanov, former prime minister and controversial member of the opposition party, in bed with another activist criticizing fellow opposition members.
- Recent indictments against Trump campaign foreign policy advisor Greg Papadopoulos provide a possible example of Russian government officials seeking to provide “dirt” on then-candidate Clinton in late April 2016.
- The so-called “Steele dossier” compiled by former British intelligence officer Christopher Steele on Trump’s alleged connections to Russia could also be the result of Russian intelligence subtly feeding the possibility of the Kremlin holding kompromat over Trump by alleging that the FSB monitored Trump engage in sexual acts at the Moscow Ritz Carlton in 2013.
Modern cyberspace allows Russian intelligence both unprecedented access to kompromat and a global distribution platform. The internet delivers an avenue to engage in plausibly deniable bulk espionage and a wide audience for which to weaponize real or falsified compromising material.
- Leaking kompromat online can reach much broader audiences than publishing it in a local newspaper or revealing it for a short time on broadcast television.
Social media troll farms, complimented by bots, can amplify viewership and create a narrative surrounding the material while websites geared toward publishing leaked material, such as WikiLeaks or kompromat.ru, give the material longevity.
Now Russian spies can reach into major commercial networks to glean personal communications that could provide compromising material on an individual for years to come – a likely scenario following the Yahoo breach where the FSB allegedly accessed account information over 500 million users.
- Monitoring social media posts and accessing the personal devices of targets, such as, for example, NATO troops forward deployed along the eastern flanks of Europe, provides an easy avenue to gather personal information. This information is then used to intimidate servicemembers and undermine troop morale.
Video, voice, and imagery editing will only make discerning the real from the doctored even more difficult, and therefore make kompromat more effective. Kompromat does not require truth or validity to be useful and digital technology helps intelligence officers either falsify compromising material or plant it on a target.
It is also now possible to use digital editing software – rather then primitive airbrushes – to doctor images to create the appearance of a compromise. In 2012, a Russian media outlet published a photo of Alexei Navalny, a Russian opposition leader, allegedly posing with the exiled oligarch, Boris Berezovsky, implying that forces outside of Russia were funding opposition efforts. Navalny then produced the original photo, proving that the one initially published had been falsified.
Intelligence officials – or criminal hackers for hire – have even broken into a target’s personal computer and uploaded child pornography files, leading to the target’s arrest. This has happened to a number of Russian dissidents living abroad.
Russian use of blackmail and character assassination, much like other intelligence activities, has become emboldened by the advent of cyberspace.
Though the practice of leveraging compromising material, or kompromat, against political opponents and those with access to sensitive information of intelligence value has long been part of the Kremlin’s playbook, advances in digital technology can magnify the effects by reaching larger audiences with more believable material.
Levi Maxey is a cyber and technology analyst at The Cipher Brief. Follow him on Twitter @lemax13.