Are the Guardian’s Kremlin Papers Legit?

Julia Ioffe
July 16, 2021

I spent half of yesterday fielding this question. On Thursday, the Guardian published a story describing a document, apparently signed by Vladimir Putin at a meeting of his closest security advisors. The story purports to show that the document authorized an operation to install Trump in the White House in 2016. The document hits every Democratic erogenous zone: it calls Trump an “impulsive, mentally unstable and unbalanced individual who suffers from an inferiority complex”; alludes to kompromat the Russian government had on Trump from one of his unofficial visits to Russia; and says a Trump presidency would bring “social turmoil” to the United States. It sounds absolutely amazing and gratifying, but is it true? The short answer is: we don’t know, but there are at least five reasons to be skeptical.

1. As Marc Polymeropoulos, a retired C.I.A. officer who fought Russian active measures from 2017 to 2019 from inside Langley, put it, “this seems to be packaged too neatly. Kremlin documents like this don’t leak.” On this, I agree with Marc. It just seems too pat and fits the narrative we want to believe a little too neatly.

2. If you know anything about how hard it is for Western intelligence agencies to pry secrets out of the Kremlin, you wonder: how in the hell did the Guardian procure such a sensitive and explosive document? The Guardian is not at all forthcoming or clear about where it came from. Here’s how they describe their sourcing:

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.

​The Guardian has shown the documents to independent experts who say they appear to be genuine. Incidental details come across as accurate. The overall tone and thrust is said to be consistent with Kremlin security thinking.

That seems extremely vague. And knowing the British press’s much laxer rules on sourcing and verification of information, this makes me nervous.

3. Is the document real, or is it a vbros, a fake document manufactured by Russian intelligence to send us into a tizzy again? I spoke to one former American intelligence agent who has seen the document and reports about the Kremlin meeting. This person told me that an ally’s intelligence services reported on the meeting, but that we don’t know if this document was signed then or created later. Plus, they pointed out, it isn’t the substance at issue—we’ve long known that the Kremlin preferred Trump to Hillary Clinton and that they used their intelligence operations to help him achieve victory—but its very release. Was it actually a secret document created for and signed by Putin in that alleged meeting, or was it created two to three years later and released “to shred us apart”? “It looks legit, but for what purpose?” the source said. “It seemed more likely that they leaked this document to make themselves look more powerful than they were and could sow division by manufacturing after the fact. It’s a no-lose game for them in that case.”

“This definitely looks like something the Kremlin could have written and ‘leaked’ for the purpose of making people look ridiculous when it’s published and everyone gets really excited about it,” said one former U.S. government official who worked on Russia. Look, for instance, at the response to the report: the American media is again talking about Trump and whether the election had been rigged by the Kremlin. (Let’s remember that undermining confidence in election security is not an exclusively Republican sport.) Is the document real or is it more Russian disinformation? I don’t think we know enough to answer that question just yet.

4. I really hate to rag on my colleagues publicly and agree with Glenn Greenwald. But Glenn voiced publicly what many of us former Russia reporters have been saying privately. The piece is written by three people, two of whom are great reporters and one, Luke Harding, whose past reporting hasn’t held up to scrutiny. In 2018, he reported that Paul Manafort went to the Ecuadorian embassy for a secret meeting with Julian Assange, but no one else could confirm that the meeting took place and the Guardian later watered down the language of the story, such as by changing “meeting” to “apparent meeting.” Those of us who overlapped with Luke in Moscow remember other stories, like his 2007 bombshell that Putin had amassed $40 billion in his first two terms in office. Amazing story! There was only one problem: Luke’s only source seemed to be the “political technologist” (that’s a thing in Russia) Stanislav Belkosky, a man we all knew as an entertaining peddler of conspiracy theories and someone who made for a fun drinking companion at the bistro where the Russian opposition drank. There are other stories that former Moscow correspondents can share, and, for many of us, a red flag snapped up when we saw Luke’s name on the story. (The Guardian did not immediately respond to a request for comment.)

Of course, not everyone agrees with me—or with my cohort of foreign correspondents in Russia—but I will say this. I remember one night in Moscow when a young British journalist told me over a beer that his professors had taught him that journalism was primarily entertainment. My American sensibilities were shocked, but it’s something I often think about when I see stories like this in the British press.

5. If the Steele Dossier—another British product—debacle taught us anything, it’s that we should be extremely careful with these kinds of explosive but anonymous documents that make us feel good by confirming our wildest fantasies about political figures we loathe. This is a situation where a grain of salt won’t suffice; get out your salt licker to read stories like these.

Still, for all my skepticism and all my spidey senses (and sources) telling me this is probably bullshit, it’s important to allow some space for the possibility that this document is real. It might be! But it’s probably not. The real issue is, we just don’t know yet. So if you’re a journalist with good sources in the intelligence community or in the inner sanctum of the Kremlin, get on it. If you’re not, take a beat, and think about whether it’s worth sharing information we don’t yet know to be true. That’s always a good policy.