Last Thursday an article was published in The Guardian which took the Russia Twittersphere by storm. And for once, those on both sides of the Russia debate – Russophiles and Putin critics – were united in their skepticism of Luke Harding’s latest "revelations."
Just when we thought the Russiagate saga had finally come to an end – with Russia’s supposed "collusion" with Trump found to be nonexistent, Harding publishes an "exclusive" piece with excerpts from what he says are "leaked Kremlin papers." The documents, he suggests, show that there was a Putin plot to put Donald Trump in the White House.
Harding writes that the papers suggest a meeting between the Russian President, senior ministers and spy chiefs, took place on January 22nd 2016, in which Putin instructed them to find practical ways of supporting Trump in his presidential election campaign. In the two short paragraphs of text is the supposed bombshell admission of Russian "collusion" with Trump. In the first excerpt we are given the Kremlin’s alleged stated intention to interfere in US politics and reason for doing so, and in the second paragraph – of only 14 lines – we are given information on a) the reason for supporting Trump b) the Kremlin’s psychological assessment of him, and c) that Russia holds some kind of "kompromat" over him based on "events that took place during his time in the Russian Federation."
It is extremely convenient that all the juicy details required to boost the claim of Russian interference are compactly fitted into one concise paragraph. As Washington Post writer Phillip Bump has said, it’s "too neat" and reads like "one of those viral Twitter threads," as if the author has been restricted to 140 characters per tweet. Then there is the timing of the "revelations." As one retired CIA officer recently commented "Coincidence and convenience are red flags in espionage." Why would the document be leaked by Putin’s inner circle now, five years after the meeting took place? Why would it not have been released during Trump’s presidency when it would have had much more effect? Why would a Kremlin official risk his position by leaking such sensitive documents at a time when they will have little effect? These questions, Harding does not give us an answer to.
On the other hand, it is more likely that the "leak" is a western hoax. It would redeem those Russophobes who insisted on the idea that Trump was Putin’s puppet, but whose assertions were debunked by the end of the Russiagate saga. It could bolster Nancy Pelosi who continues tirelessly in her anti-Trump crusade, the latest installment being "Impeachment 3.0." It would be a boost to the more hawkish Democrats who began to quake in their shoes after Joe Biden’s "positive" summit with Putin last month, which resulted in a marked de-escalation of tensions. There are clearly those in the western security establishment who are keen to exacerbate the current "cold war" with Russia and turn it into a hot one, as we saw recently from the Black Sea provocation. Indeed, it is no coincidence I believe that this "leak" was published in a UK newspaper, as Britain appears to be leading the charge against Russia of late. And it is no coincidence that Luke Harding was the author of the report, as his previous unsubstantiated "exclusive" – the claim that Paul Manafort visited Julian Assange in the Ecuadorian embassy – was later shown to be false. The most plausible explanation therefore, is that western security services view Harding as a soft target for being fed with explosive, but completely fake material.
As for the content of the documents themselves, we are not provided with all the papers, and no explanation is given for their absence. What possible reason could there be for concealing the rest of the documentation? On the other hand, the reader is left to trust Luke Harding’s interpretation of the text. As such, it is clear he is presenting the information in a particular way to sway public opinion. One example of this is his description of the purported Kremlin meeting on January 22nd. He lists those who were present – Putin, Medvedev, and Lavrov – together with "Sergei Shoigu, the defense minister in charge of the GRU, Russia’s military intelligence agency; Mikhail Fradkov, the then chief of Russia’s SVR foreign intelligence service; and Alexander Bortnikov, the boss of the FSB spy agency. Nikolai Patrushev, the FSB’s former director, attended too as security council secretary." This information is clearly taken from the Kremlin website, where these individuals are cited as attending a meeting of the Security Council at 3pm on the 22nd, where questions surrounding Russia’s socio-economic situation, Moldovan politics, and global markets were discussed.
What Harding omits from his description however, are several other figures who were present at the meeting and named on the Kremlin website – Valentina Matvienko (Chairperson of the Federation Council), Sergei Naryshkin (then Chairperson of the State Duma), Interior Minister (Vladimir Kolokoltsev) and two other security council members Rashid Nurgaliev and Boris Gryzlov. So why did Harding fail to mention them? The obvious answer is that it doesn’t fit his narrative. He only mentioned those whose presence would make sense in a discussion about national security and an alleged campaign against America. Matvienko, Naryshkin and Kolokoltsev would have been out of place at such a gathering as their focus was domestic issues – which were described as one of the items on the agenda. It’s also worth noting that, according to the Kremlin website, the meeting at 3pm only lasted 50 minutes – at 3.50pm the Russian President met with the leader of Bashkortostan. If the topic was, as weighty as Harding alleges – Donald Trump and proposed interference in the US election – it is likely that the meeting would have gone on longer than 50 minutes.
Aside from this, there is the question of the Russian language itself. Many Russian speakers have commented that the text itself is not in keeping with official Russian government lexicon, and includes grammatical errors which pose questions about the document’s authenticity. One Russian Twitter user notes that a comma shouldn’t be used before "и может"; "делегЕтимизация" is spelled with an orthographic error; "провокация возникновения" is not how native speakers speak, even in bureaucratic language, and "занимающих роль" is a lexical mistake. The syntax has provoked suggestions of it being a product of Google translate or a text composed with help from an unschooled Russian speaker, as it doesn’t lend itself well to the "Russian ear."
We are shown neither the official Kremlin "stamp" nor Putin’s signature which is purported to be on the document. Nor are we told who the "independent expert" is who has verified the papers’ authenticity. With so many holes in the story, it is impossible to give it any credence. The most likely explanation is that it is a last-ditch attempt to bolster the Russiagate saga and renew efforts to heighten the current cold war with Russia. There are plenty within the western military-industrial complex who benefit from US-Russian antagonism, particularly those arms companies involved in "defending" the Baltic States and Eastern Europe from the imaginary "Russian threat." The fact is, conflict on any level with Russia "sells," and until this changes, we will continue to be persuaded that Russia is out to get us. With Luke Harding’s help, of course.
Johanna Ross is a journalist based in Edinburgh, Scotland. Follow her on Twitter.