By Professor Sarah Oates

Originally published in the Washington Post, Jan. 13, 2017: Reprinted with permission

Short for “compromising material” in Russian, kompromat is all about the intersection of news and blackmail. It’s the ability to sully the reputations of political opponents or pressure allies through hints, images, videos, promises of disclosures, perhaps even some high-quality faked documentation. Sex or pornography often figures prominently. The beauty of kompromat is that it has to create only a sense of doubt, not prove its case conclusively. This sounds a bit like “fake news,” but in a classic kompromat operation, real Russian state media organizations work in tandem with the Kremlin to find appealing and effective ways to discredit the target. Often, that means in the most visceral and personal ways possible.

Now kompromat may have come to the United States.

This past week, news broke that U.S. intelligence officials had briefed Trump on unsubstantiated allegations that Russian operatives had gathered scandalous information on him or had had contacts with his advisers. But kompromat was a constant undercurrent in the campaign, too: National security officials say hackers linked to Russian intelligence got into the Democratic National Committee’s servers and the Gmail account of Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman in order to leak damaging information about her. And Trump’s love of conspiracy theories and baseless accusations isn’t so far from the Russian concept, either — which may be why the idea that he might have been a target of kompromat himself is resonating so clearly with his political opponents.

The Kremlin has denied that it sought to gather compromising information on Trump during his visits to Russia, as it has denied involvement in the DNC hacks. But a high-profile businessman such as Trump would be a prototypical target for such an operation. And denials are also standard.

Kompromat has evolved well beyond the clumsy photo-editing of the Stalin era, when political opponents were carefully airbrushed out. Several opponents of Russian President Vladimir Putin or the Russian regime find themselves facing charges of possession of child pornography that they believe was planted by Russian operatives – in Russia, but also in Lithuania and Britain.

Another tactic of choice involves sex tapes. In 2010, videos of Russian opposition journalists and politicians who had been filmed separately having sex with the same young Russian woman were leaked online. Last year, an opposition political party was damaged when a tape emerged of a married party leader having sex with an aide. Putin has been involved in such operations for years: In 1999, when he was the head of the FSB (the post-Soviet successor to the KGB), Putin reportedly helped then-President Boris Yeltsin to discredit and dismiss powerful prosecutor Yuri Skuratov, who had threatened to reveal which Russian officials were siphoning money to foreign bank accounts. When Yeltsin could not persuade the parliament to fire Skuratov, a video of the prosecutor — or at least a man who resembled him — having sex with prostitutes was aired on television. This all may sound like something out of “The Americans,” but it’s politics as usual in Russia.
Read the full article on the Washington Post website.