Malacandra.me

*Kompromat* and *sistema*, oh my

Kompromat and sistema, oh my

by digby



Adam Davidson has a theory about Trump and his bff Putin:

The former C.I.A. operative Jack Devine watched Donald Trump’s performance standing next to Vladimir Putin in Helsinki on Monday, and his first thought was, “There is no way Trump is a Russian agent.” The proof, he told me, was right in front of us. If Trump were truly serving as a Russian intelligence asset, there would have been an obvious move for him to make during his joint press conference with Putin. He would have publicly lambasted the Russian leader, unleashing as theatrical a denunciation as possible. He would have told Putin that he may have been able to get away with a lot of nonsense under Barack Obama, but all that would end now: America has a strong President and there will be no more meddling. Instead, Trump gave up his single best chance to permanently put to rest any suspicion that he is working to promote Russian interests.

During a three-decade career in intelligence, Devine ran the C.I.A.’s effort to get the Soviet Union out of Afghanistan, and then served as the No. 2 (and, briefly, acting head) of its clandestine service. Along the way, he tangled with, and carefully studied, Russian intelligence officers. He was involved in two major hunts for American intelligence operatives who were secretly working for the K.G.B.: Devine was the supervisor of Aldrich Ames, the C.I.A. officer who pleaded guilty to spying for Moscow in 1994, and he oversaw the investigation of Robert Hanssen, the F.B.I. counterintelligence officer who confessed to being a double agent in 2001. Hanssen, for instance, was like Trump, narcissistic, with a broad set of grievances about the many ways that his special qualities were not being recognized. But, unlike Trump, he harbored those grievances quietly and found satisfaction in secretly upending the system in which he operated. Trump shows no signs that he can be gratified by secret triumphs. He seems to need everyone, everywhere, to see whatever it is that he thinks deserves praise. His need for public attention is a trait that would likely cause most spies to avoid working with Trump.

There is no need to assume that Trump was a formal agent of Russian intelligence to make sense of Trump’s solicitousness toward Putin. Keith Darden, an international-relations professor at American University, has studied the Russian use of kompromat—compromising material—and told me that he thinks it is likely that the President believes the Russians have something on him. “He’s never said a bad word about Putin,” Darden said. “He’s exercised a degree of self-control with respect to Russia that he doesn’t with anything else.” Darden said that this is evidence that Trump isn’t uniformly reckless in his words: “He is capable of being strategic. He knows there are limits, there are bounds on what he can say and do with respect to Russia.”

Because the word kompromat is new to most Americans, and has been introduced in the context of a President whose behavior confuses many of us, it is natural to assume that it must be a big, rare, scary thing, used in extraordinary circumstances to force compliance and achieve grand aims. But, Darden explained to me, kompromat is routinely used throughout the former Soviet Union to curry favor, improve negotiated outcomes, and sway opinion. Intelligence services, businesspeople, and political figures everywhere exploit gossip and damaging information. However, Darden argues, kompromat has a uniquely powerful role in the former Soviet Union, where the practice is so pervasive, he coined the term “Blackmail State” to describe their way of governance.

Kompromat can be a single, glaring example of wrongdoing, recorded by someone close to the Kremlin and then used to control the bad actor. It can be proof of an embarrassing sex act. Darden believes it is unlikely that sexual kompromat would be effective on Trump. Allegations of sexual harassment, extramarital affairs, and the payment of hush money to hide indiscretions have failed to significantly diminish the enthusiasm of Trump’s core supporters. But another common form of kompromat—proof of financial crimes—could be more politically and personally damaging.


This makes sense. It would be the reason Putin smirked when asked if he had kompromat and said Trump was to much of a small fry to have attracted his notice. Bada-bing. Trump couldn't have been happy about that ...

The article goes on to lay out an interesting case that Trump's financial ties to Russia were tertiary to the big money oligarchs and therefore be kompromat collected by the sistema a shadowy loos-knit, gangster-style organization that has long defined Russia's financial and political hierarchy and which Putin has simply re-tooled for his own use:

Because the word kompromat is new to most Americans, and has been introduced in the context of a President whose behavior confuses many of us, it is natural to assume that it must be a big, rare, scary thing, used in extraordinary circumstances to force compliance and achieve grand aims. But, Darden explained to me, kompromat is routinely used throughout the former Soviet Union to curry favor, improve negotiated outcomes, and sway opinion. Intelligence services, businesspeople, and political figures everywhere exploit gossip and damaging information. However, Darden argues, kompromat has a uniquely powerful role in the former Soviet Union, where the practice is so pervasive, he coined the term “Blackmail State” to describe their way of governance.

Alena Ledeneva, a professor of politics at University College London and an expert on Russia’s political and business practices, describes kompromat as being more than a single powerful figure weaponizing damning evidence to blackmail a target. She explained that to make sense of kompromat it is essential to understand the weakness of formal legal institutions in Russia and other former Soviet states. Ledeneva argued that wealth and power are distributed through networks of political figures and businesspeople who follow unspoken rules, in an informal hierarchy that she calls the sistema, or system in English. Sistema has a few clear rules—do not defy Putin being the most obvious one—and a toolkit for controlling potentially errant members. It is primarily a system of ambiguity. Each person in the sistema wonders where he stands and monitors the relative positions of friends and rivals.

It is clear that something is weird with Trump and Russia. That's been true since the day he announced his run for office. This adds a new layer of understanding to what might have happened. Well worth reading the whole thing.