SOURCES AND METHODS
Was This Russian General Murdered Over the Steele Dossier?
The notorious dossier on Trump that Republicans want to discredit may well have been credible enough in Russian President Vladimir Putin’s eyes to get at least one person killed.
The dossier on Donald Trump compiled by former British intelligence operative Christopher Steele—which made headlines for its salacious, unconfirmed passage about Trump and some hookers performing for him in a Moscow hotel room—has been denounced by the president’s people as fake news, of course.
But the document was a mixed collection of information and allegations far more precise than the rumors about compromising sexual activities, and some of what’s in it may have unnerved not only Trump, but the Kremlin, where the hunt for leakers can take a fatal turn.
During his recently released August 2017 testimony to the Senate Judiciary Committee, Glenn Simpson was asked about sources for the sensational dossier, which Simpson’s firm, Fusion GPS, commissioned. Responding for him, Simpson’s lawyer, Joshua Levy, blurted out a surprising warning: “Somebody’s already been killed as a result of the publication of this dossier.”
In his subsequent November testimony to the House Intelligence Committee, which was made available last Thursday, Simpson denied knowing specific cases of people being killed because of the dossier, but he then noted cryptically that “people literally risked their lives to tell us some of this stuff.”
In fact, there is evidence that at least one Russian was murdered because of Steele’s revelations: Gen. Oleg Erovinkin of Russia’s State Security Service (FSB). On the morning of Dec. 26, 2016, Erovinkin, age 61, was found dead in his car in central Moscow. Life News, known to be a Kremlin mouthpiece, first claimed on its website that Erovinkin had been “killed,” but then quickly changed its story, saying simply that Erovinkin had “died.” FSB investigators were called immediately to the death scene, and news outlets soon reported that Erovinkin had succumbed to a heart attack. There was no more official Russian mention of him.
Erovinkin, who joined the KGB (the FSB’s predecessor) in 1976, had in the mid-1990s worked in the Russian Presidential Administration, where his job was to monitor compliance with security procedures. (He was known as “the keeper of the Kremlin’s secrets.”) He then served under Igor Sechin when the latter was deputy premier and subsequently followed Sechin to Rosneft in 2012, after Sechin became CEO of the state oil giant.
Of all the officials who serve under Putin, Sechin is the most powerful. Erovinkin, as chief administrator at Rosneft, was Sechin’s right-hand man and must have known everything about Sechin’s contacts with Americans. Those included the former head of ExxonMobil, now Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. (Sechin once said he felt thwarted by U.S.-imposed sanctions that kept him from riding motorcycles in America with his friend Tillerson.)
More importantly, in terms of allegations made by the Steele dossier and currently the focus of multiple investigations in Washington, Erovinkin was in a position to keep track of contacts with Trump advisers in considerable detail.
Steele wrote in his dossier that “a Russian source close to Rosneft President [sic] Igor Sechin” had confided details of a secret July 2016 meeting in Moscow between Sechin and Trump foreign-policy adviser Carter Page. The two had allegedly discussed bilateral energy cooperation between the United States and Russia, along with the lifting of Ukraine-related economic sanctions against Russia. As a quid pro quo, Sechin was said to have offered Page and his associates the brokerage of a 19 percent stake in Rosneft, which was due to be privatized. Page reportedly indicated that Trump, if elected president, would lift sanctions.
Known to be sympathetic to the Kremlin, Page was apparently viewed by the Russian security services as a key object for advancing their interests with Trump. (In 2013, an agent from the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service, SVR, met Page in New York City and engaged in several communications with him as part of a recruitment attempt.)
The Steele dossier mentions that Page also met on this same Moscow trip with Igor Diveikin, an FSB colonel who was at the time a senior official in the Internal Political Department of the Russian Presidential Administration. Diveikin, who had previously served in the Presidential Security Service, the agency with the crucial responsibility of guarding the Russian president, reportedly told Page about compromising material the Russians had on Hillary Clinton and also conveyed to Page that the Kremlin had kompromat on Trump, which Trump should consider in his dealings with Russia.
When questioned by the House Intelligence Committee in November, Page denied knowing either Sechin or Diveikin. But he also claimed that he met with no senior Russian officials while he was in Moscow in July 2016, and that turned out to be untrue.
After Rep. Adam Schiff reminded Page of his July 8, 2016, email from Moscow to members of the Trump campaign saying that he had received “incredible insights and outreach” from senior members of Putin’s administration, Page backtracked. He reluctantly admitted meeting with Russian vice premier Arkady Dvorkovich and also with Andrei Baranov, who is head of investor relations at Rosneft, a top management position that would put Baranov in frequent contact with Sechin. (Significantly, Baranov was awarded a medal “for service to his country” by Putin in March 2017.)
After insisting to the committee that he and Baranov only got together because they were old friends, Page was forced to acknowledge that the two may have discussed sanctions and also the potential sale of Rosneft’s stock, which makes one wonder whether Sechin was at the meeting as well.
The plan to privatize part of Rosneft was not known outside of Rosneft’s top management at this time and it was a contentious issue, as was the proposed purchase by Rosneft of controlling shares in the oil company Bashneft, which occurred in October. (The sale of 19.5 percent of Rosneft shares to Qatar and the commodities giant Glencore was announced in early December.)
All of these negotiations were fraught, and the subject of high-level infighting among senior Russian officials.
One who initially opposed both of these transactions was Minister of Economic Development Aleksei Ulyukaev, who was arrested in November 2016 on charges of taking a $2 million bribe from Sechin. It was a classic sting operation, with Sechin in charge, and after a sensational trial Ulyukaev was sentenced in December to eight years in a strict regime labor camp. Sechin had been called to appear as a witness, but refused. In his stead, Page’s friend Baranov appeared to testify against Ulyukaev.
Erovinkin would have known about all these intrigues in great detail, and thus could have exposed not only links to the Trump campaign, but internal corruption—all of which would put him in danger if he were thought to be leaking information.
According to the recent book by British journalist Luke Harding, Collusion: Secret Meetings, Dirty Money, and How Russia Helped Donald Trump Win, Steele denied that Erovinkin was a direct source for his report. But, as Harding told me recently, the information could nonetheless have originated with Erovinkin. (Steele refers to "a senior member of Sechin's staff" as confirming the Sechin-Page meeting to his source.) And even it did not come from Erovinkin, he would have borne responsibility for the leaks, since he was the head of Rosneft’s administration, with security part of his purview. The fatal question ultimately is not what he did, but what he was thought to have done.
While the Ulyukaev case and the Rosneft transactions certainly contribute to the air of conspiracy around Erovinkin’s death, it is more than likely that the Steele dossier did him in.
Although the dossier was not published on the web until two weeks after Erovinkin died, the Kremlin was doubtless aware of its contents well before this. Simpson had conveyed much of the material to American journalists in the autumn of 2016, and, according to the Harding book: “For months, reporters on the national security beat and Moscow correspondents had been working feverishly to substantiate the allegations.”
In fact, the arrests in December of high-level FSB officers responsible for cyber operations were widely assumed to be set off by Steele’s revelations that the Trump campaign had colluded in the Russian cyber attacks against the Clinton campaign that were revealed by U.S. intelligence agencies.
However much Trump’s defenders want to dismiss the dossier as a fake concocted by the president’s enemies, the fallout from it in Russia, including at least one highly probable murder, suggests that much of what Steele reported is fact.