It was 1999, and the Russian Prosecutor General, Yury Skuratov, who was investigating former Russian President Boris Yeltsin’s administration for corruption, found himself in the bull’s eye of a blackmail operation designed to smear his reputation and force him to resign. The operation used blackmail – known as kompromat, or “compromising material” in Russian – and is not a standalone incident, but rather a systematic tactic often used by Russian security services to coerce opponents of the Kremlin into submission.
A younger Vladimir Putin, then serving as the director of the FSB, Russia’s primary security service and successor of the KGB, declared on Russian television that the man in a videotape in bed with two prostitutes was indeed Skuratov. Putin publicly argued for Skuratov’s resignation as well as a follow-on criminal investigation. The act cemented Putin’s support for President Yeltsin, which would lead to promotions first to Deputy Prime Minister, then Prime Minister and then Acting President.
Having previously climbed the ranks of the KGB, Putin was well versed in the Soviet art of kompromat.
The KGB and its successor intelligence services routinely use kompromat against opponents of the Russian government, both foreign and domestic. When possible, Russian intelligence officers lure unsuspecting targets, like Skuratov, into compromising themselves. The services then document or record the act to blackmail targets with later.
Failing to remember the old Russian adage “besplatniy sir biyvaet tol’ko v mishelovke” – “free cheese can only be found in a mousetrap” – unsophisticated targets become instantly vulnerable to blackmail when they fall for Russian spy traps.
The KGB and its Russian successors routinely equip hotels with surveillance equipment designed to catch the unsuspecting target in a compromising situation, such as sexual acts, corruption, drug abuse, etc. In Tallinn, Estonia, the Intourist hotel began operating a museum to display KGB espionage and blackmail techniques after the collapse of the former Soviet Union.
But Russian intelligence goes even further – it never hesitates to fabricate information to target those who are too savvy to risk taking a piece of cheese from the KGB’s mousetrap. Having long relied on television and press placements in the media – which the Kremlin has controlled going back to the Soviet era – modern Russian intelligence weaponizes its blackmail payload via both traditional and modern means, such as the internet and social media. Cyberspace offers the added benefits of misattribution and instantaneous, high-volume distribution with little time for victims to successfully dispute the accusations before the damage is done.
For example, in 2009, the FSB fabricated a video of an American diplomat whose profile included human rights. Seeking to soil this diplomat’s reputation and induce the U.S. embassy country team to refrain from reporting on Russia’s human rights violations, the FSB falsified a video that purported to show the diplomat attempting to contact a prostitute in downtown Moscow.
With no regard for any potential collateral damage on the bilateral relationship during the ill-fated “Reset” period between the U.S. and Russia, the FSB fabricated material to be used as kompromat with an eye towards repressing domestic political dissent.
Adhering to a basic premise of Russian disinformation tactics, the video was accurate in some basic respects, including, for example, the diplomat walking on the street and making a phone call prior to the purported compromising moment. However, the FSB tinkered with the video by adding untrue compromising elements designed for blackmail purposes – namely the diplomat soliciting a prostitute.
In Putin’s Russia, where the ends of regime security justify any illegal means necessary, neither Skuratov nor the American diplomat had any path of recourse. State-sponsored blackmail only works in the absence of the rule of law, which allows a nefarious state actor such as Russia to spread disinformation against its enemies, coerce opponents and critics into resignation, or smear their reputation to the point of discrediting their voices.
Last week, Congress held hearings about how Putin has sought to export Russia’s pernicious ideas and influence to the American homeland by targeting U.S. social media and networking sites. The hearings were a positive step forward in warning fellow Americans about Russia’s efforts to degrade trust in the modern cyber infrastructure, which is the backbone of our modern democratic process.
At the heart of Russia’s tactics is the spread of disinformation designed to sow discord in our society – the same tactics used by KGB and modern Kremlin blackmail but now on a massive scale. Inoculating our citizens against Russian use of disinformation and blackmail starts with vigilantly spotting and exposing the Kremlin’s state-sponsored espionage tactics, which have been critical to Putin’s regime security – going all the way back to Skuratov’s demise.