The most intriguing news of the day was the plea agreement by George Papadopoulos, a Trump campaign adviser of unclear rank and influence, who apparently made a prolonged effort to establish contact with people whom he thought were connected to the Kremlin: repeated attempts that were, in a way, bungling and ham-fisted, but also quite revealing, and potentially of much larger significance. Papadopoulos’s intermediary with Moscow, or so he thought, was an unnamed professor, based in London, according to his plea agreement. (The Washington Post identified him as Joseph Mifsud, the director of the London Academy of Diplomacy.) The professor then introduced Papadopolous to a “female Russian national” who was purported to be related to Vladimir Putin. (Papadopoulos described her in an e-mail as “Putin’s niece,” even though Putin has no siblings.) That led to further talks with a contact at Russia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs about the idea of a Trump-Putin meeting, or one between aides. (The Washington Post identified the ministry contact as the Russian foreign-policy expert Ivan Timofeev.) When Papadopoulos again saw the professor in London, they discussed supposed “dirt” the Kremlin had on Hillary Clinton.
All of this sounds fairly B-grade and audaciously silly, and in a way, it is—but that is how Russian intelligence, or any intelligence service, for that matter, is likely to play things. Use unofficial, wholly deniable front men and deploy them against those who, out of naïvety, ambition, or lack of scruples, make for attractive targets. Papadopoulos may have been all of those. Based on his guilty plea, it sounds like Papadopoulos’s various plans eventually fizzled out—but that doesn’t mean the Kremlin’s did. Russian intelligence officers and high-ranking officials—that is, those with some probable awareness of, or involvement in, the “active measures” campaign to influence the election—are likely to have understood Papadopoulos’s eagerness as a wink to do more. Papadopoulos may have looked ridiculous and unprofessional, but his closeness to “the body,” as a political principle is called in Russian, made him someone Russian operatives would have taken seriously.
The same logic applied to another Trump adviser, Carter Page—an otherwise unremarkable ex-banker—who, during a visit to Moscow in July, 2016, was apparently given an audience with Igor Sechin, a supremely powerful Putin adviser and the head of the country’s state oil giant, Rosneft. Meetings like that don’t happen unless the Kremlin takes its interlocutor seriously; in Trump’s improvised campaign, figuring out who was serious and who was a pretender was no easy business. Russian officials may have been led by their own projection bias. In the Putin system, a man like Timofeev, the Russian foreign-policy expert who was apparently the unnamed liaison at the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, is not a person to embark on freelance boondoggles, especially on matters concerning a candidate for U.S. President. The Kremlin may rely on a wide range of grifters and free agents and shady businesspeople to carry out its foreign-policy objectives—but the point is that those objectives ultimately remain the Kremlin’s prerogative, even if they are carried out by so many middlemen as to make the thread untraceable. Told of Papadopoulos and his entreaties, Russian officials would have assumed the same: that this guy, however blunt and unsophisticated, must speak for Trump. The question is: Did he?