Picture this: Vladimir Putin is sitting back in his armchair and rubbing his hands in glee amid the storm of confusion shaking Washington over allegations of President-elect Donald Trump's "deep ties" to the Kremlin.
That picture could be true. But it is also unverified – and more importantly, unverifiable, even for Russia's media and security experts. And therein lies one of their key takeaways from the 35-page dossier on Mr. Trump's alleged Russia connections, compiled by Christopher Steele, a former agent of Britain's MI6 intelligence service, and published by BuzzFeed on Tuesday.
Several Russian foreign policy and security experts contacted Thursday said they found the document a fascinating read. But not one of the analysts, who included veteran journalists and Kremlin-connected consultants, said they had any way to judge the veracity of the extraordinary claims now roiling political discourse in the US.
Those include the allegation that Russia's FSB security service has been cultivating Trump for at least five years; that they collected lurid kompromat, or compromising material, on him when he visited Moscow in 2013; that Russian businessmen had made lucrative offers to him on behalf of the Kremlin; or that officials around Mr. Putin argued over the alleged campaign to interfere in US presidential elections, and at least one highly placed head rolled over the issue.
"I work for one of the biggest newspapers in Russia. We have whole departments dedicated to following the Kremlin, the security services, and the business community. Some of our people are really well connected, and sometimes they bring in a real scoop," says Sergei Strokan, foreign affairs columnist for the pro-business Moscow daily Kommersant. "But if you want to assume that the information in that dossier is accurate, then it represents work that the entire Russian media, with all its resources, couldn't come close to reproducing."
Reasons to doubt
Any long-term Russia observer knows that it's possible to pick up all sorts of sensational political gossip – often delivered by Russian friends and contacts in tones of certainty – that ultimately seldom pans out. The controversial dossier, whose provenance is described at length in a New York Times article, was possibly harvested from Moscow's notorious rumor grapevine, analysts say.
"The Russian system has plenty of deficiencies, but no outsider could possibly find out what kinds of discussions are taking place in Putin's office, who is angry at who, or any of that intimate detail," says Fyodor Lukyanov, chair of the Council on Foreign and Defense Policy, which advises the Kremlin. "Putin runs a very tight ship. No leaks. No rumors confirmed. He is, famously, very professional about it."
The memos contain several amateurish errors, says Andrei Soldatov, author of "The New Nobility," which traces the KGB's rise to power in Russia, and one of the country's top experts on the security services. "For instance, it confuses Department K of the FSB with Department K of the Interior Ministry," he says.
"But mainly I have problems with the analysis," he adds. "As with any classic conspiracy theory, all Putin's moves are made to seem connected with the US election 'operation,' such as the firing of top personnel. In fact, Putin had lots of reasons for changing his team last year."
Some scratch their heads over why US intelligence agencies appear to have made the documents seem newsworthy by including a summary of them in a top-secret briefing given to President Barack Obama and Trump last week. According to the Times, US intelligence had "not made any judgment that the information in this document is reliable," and just handed a synopsis of its allegations to the White House for information purposes. Many Western news outlets appear to have been aware of the colorful memos, but avoided discussion of the memos' contents until that happened.
"It is clear that US intelligence itself did not have that information, it wasn't generated by them, and they took no responsibility for it," says Alexei Kondaurov, a former KGB general turned political activist. "So why would they present it in such a way as to hint that it might be real? It's very strange."
Mr. Strokan says that if an analogous document were given to Kommersant, perhaps written by a former Russian agent and claiming high-level knowledge of what's going on in the White House, the Pentagon, and CIA headquarters, it would be permanently shelved.
"Unless, of course, our security services told us it was good information. Then it might be treated differently. But we would definitely go out and try to check the sources, verify the facts. We wouldn't just publish it" as BuzzFeed did, he says. (So far, few Western outlets have published more than the summary from the Obama and Trump briefing.)
"I obviously can't disprove it all, but to me it reads just like a Sidney Sheldon novel," he says of the Trump dossier. "I'm inclined to classify it as pure fiction."
Signs of a power struggle?
The view of most Russian experts is that they are watching a power struggle unfolding within the US establishment, in which wild allegations are being thrown about for political effect, regardless of their basis in fact. Russians are quite familiar with such situations, both during the Yeltsin era and far more recently under Putin, so it's unsurprising that they might gravitate to that explanation.
"I think Trump is being targeted by US special services because he plans to implement sweeping reforms of those agencies," says Mr. Kondaurov. It's not Russians who are wielding kompromat against Trump, he suggests, but his own intelligence establishment. "These allegations [that he is a Kremlin puppet] will be hanging over his head, and it will definitely make it harder for him to deal with Russia."
And this is the nature of such murky intelligence, he adds. "Trump can't disprove anything. No matter what he says, many people will believe it, and the atmosphere of suspicion will always cling to him."