For six years now, ever since The Donald descended the golden escalator at Trump Tower in Manhattan to announce his run for president, American journalists and pundits have attempted to determine what Donald J. Trump’s relationship with the Kremlin really is (or at least was). This tricky question has generated considerably more heat than light, because to answer it you need to know a lot about the real-world modus operandi of Russian intelligence, which practically no journalists or pundits do.
Based on my experience in counterintelligence operations against the Russian “special services,” I’ve tried to explain Trump’s murky relationship with Moscow for years too. In recent months, Top Secret Umbra has shed new light here and here on just what’s been going on between Russian Intelligence Services, called RIS in the spy-trade, and our forty-fifth president. It’s all considerably more complex than what non-experts seeking your clicks want you to believe. Officially, the matter is unsettled, and will remain so until we get access to classified RIS files in Moscow. Barring the unlikely appearance of the next Vasili Mitrokhin, that looks to be a good, long wait.
Yet there was an apparent minor break in this case yesterday when the Guardian published a story that claims to be based on internal Kremlin classified intelligence documents derived from a top-level January 22, 2016 Moscow meeting between President Vladimir Putin and his top security advisors, including the heads of Russia’s spy agencies, regarding what to do about the Russia-friendly Trump and his presidential run. Says the Guardian:
The report – “No 32-04 \ vd” – is classified as secret. It says Trump is the “most promising candidate” from the Kremlin’s point of view. The word in Russian is perspektivny.
There is a brief psychological assessment of Trump, who is described as an “impulsive, mentally unstable and unbalanced individual who suffers from an inferiority complex”.
There is also apparent confirmation that the Kremlin possesses kompromat, or potentially compromising material, on the future president, collected – the document says – from Trump’s earlier “non-official visits to Russian Federation territory”.
The paper refers to “certain events” that happened during Trump’s trips to Moscow. Security council members are invited to find details in appendix five, at paragraph five, the document states. It is unclear what the appendix contains.
“It is acutely necessary to use all possible force to facilitate his [Trump’s] election to the post of US president,” the paper says.
This would help bring about Russia’s favoured “theoretical political scenario”. A Trump win “will definitely lead to the destabilisation of the US’s sociopolitical system” and see hidden discontent burst into the open, it predicts.
This rings broadly true to anyone acquainted with RIS and how they function in Putin’s Kremlin. Most of the senior staff around the Russian leader, like him, are veterans of the KGB and other RIS organs, usually going back to Soviet times. This inner group consists largely of what Russians call Chekists. They possess the same conspiratorial, even paranoid worldview. Putin takes a great interest in all intelligence matters, to the point of micromanaging sensitive spy operations; I’ve long called him the Chekist-in-Chief, with cause.
This report’s unflattering depiction of Trump, who is seen as a buffoonish and seedy character by top Russians around Putin, is unsurprising, while the decision of Kremlin leadership to employ RIS espionage and propaganda capabilities to boost Trump in his presidential run is generally known. It was described in considerable detail in the Senate Intelligence Committee’s massive unclassified report released almost a year ago.
However, there are several problems here. In the first place, there’s nothing particularly new in these claims, much less shocking, to anyone who’s followed this story in recent years. While many liberals have greeted this Guardian story with glee, since it confirms their worst fears about Trump, whereas conservatives have generally dismissed it as more “Resistance” fanfic, the salient fact is that there’s not much to get excited about one way or the other. Bombshells are missing altogether.
Then there’s the sourcing of this story, which is vague, even sketchy. Per the report:
Western intelligence agencies are understood to have been aware of the documents for some months and to have carefully examined them. The papers, seen by the Guardian, seem to represent a serious and highly unusual leak from within the Kremlin.
Understood…how? Aware…how? Major leaks like this, particularly of high-level classified, limited-distribution intelligence documents such as this purports to be, are pretty much unheard of in the Kremlin. A trove of this sensitivity would be seen by few people in Moscow, so how it wound up in the hands of one or more Western intelligence agencies (which ones, by the way?) lingers as a key question. It seems likely that if these documents are genuine – hold that thought for a moment – we’re seeing them because the Kremlin wants us to see them. Given the century-long RIS history of pushing doctored or outright fake documents to Western journalists in the service of strategic disinformation, there’s ample room for skepticism here.
As for the documents themselves, the Guardian only showed readers two brief snippets of the alleged Kremlin reports, which doesn’t help much and adds to doubts about their bona fides. What we can see possesses certain linguistic mistakes and oddities. I studied quite a bit of Russian and used it during my Intelligence Community career, but I’m no native speaker, so I asked for the input of three Russian native speakers (two of whom work for the IC) on the two portions that the Guardian has shared with us. All said the same thing: the verbiage seems off, inauthentic, citing a few grammatical errors, while two of them suggested that it reads like it was written in English first, then translated into Russian. That’s hardly definitive analysis, but it raises further questions about these documents’ true provenance.
Then we have the important matter of classification. As The Examiner’s Tom Rogan pointed out, its seems odd that such a sensitive document authored for the top-level leadership in Moscow would be classified at the Secret level, which isn’t very high. I’ll go further based on my IC experience: it’s well-nigh impossible. Putin’s Kremlin loves its secrets and we can be certain that this highly sensitive collection, which includes not just a psychological analysis of Trump, but also recommendations for what American spies would term covert action, would be classified Top Secret (совершенно секретно in Russian), with handling caveats.
Last, we have the substantially sized dog that didn’t bark here. We know that Trump had some sort of contact with the KGB going back at least to his July 1987 trip to Moscow and Leningrad, which was arranged by the KGB. It was standard KGB practice to use such sponsored junkets for foreign VIPs onto their turf as a prelude to establishing some sort of relationship with them. As Top Secret Umbra previously explained, there’s no reason to think that Trump became any sort of bona fide spy for the Kremlin, and plenty of reason to think he didn’t, but the KGB certainly wrote up reports about Trump’s 1987 visit (as other KGB satellite services did about Trump previously).
That would be something which RIS would have told Putin about in the January 2016 meeting. It’s vital background information. After all, if the KGB had attempted to recruit Trump in 1987 and failed, Putin would assuredly want to know that. It’s incomprehensible that such information would be omitted from these documents. However, the Guardian mentions no such thing. Which they would because any new information about Trump’s genuine relationship with the Kremlin would be a legitimate bombshell. So, what’s going on here?
In the late Cold War KGB which shaped Vladimir Putin, aggressive Chekist counterintelligence activities to make the enemy chase his tail, often in a pointless fashion, were termed “mice games” (мышиная возня). These served to wear the other side out. Which is exactly what many Kremlin disinformation schemes seek to do with American politics. This new Guardian’s story has rekindled partisan passions over President Trump, on both sides, which presumably was the intent of the architects of this exercise, whoever they really are.