The Russians’ Sloppy Papadopoulos Spycraft

There’s a certain basic level of disrespect involved in how the Russians treated George Papadopoulos. There’s no doubt that they deliberately compromised him, but the way in which they did it was sloppy. To begin with, Papadopolous was a member of an organization called the London Centre of International Law Practice. It was in this role, that he traveled to Rome in March of 2016 and met with a professor named Joseph Mifsud.

Mifsud’s résumé has now been deleted from the Centre’s website but until very recently he was listed as their director of international strategic development. In an interview with the Italian newspaper La Repubblica last week, Professor Joseph Mifsud explained how he had met Papadopoulos in Rome.

“[Papadopoulous] came here in Italy, in Rome, with other seven experts of international relations working for the London Centre of International Law Practice. We were dining and, if I remember well, he announced that we [sic] would join Trump’s electoral campaign team. After that, we kept in touch via email or when we subsequently met in person.

Mifsud is a slippery character. For example, he ran an organization called the London Academy of Diplomacy. This academy has vanished.

Today, there is no sign of the London Academy of Diplomacy on Middlesex Street in London. Phone numbers for the organisation that can be found online do not work and websites lead to error messages. A receptionist at the address said the organisation left the premises six months ago.

“Any stuff we get, we just send it back,” she said.

In any case, Prof. Mifsud did indeed keep in touch with Papadopoulos. A couple of weeks later, on March 24th, they met in London where Mifsud introduced a lady calling herself Olga Vinogradova. She represented herself as a blood relation of Russian president Vladimir Putin. In subsequent emails back to the Trump campaign, Papadopoulos referred to her as Putin’s niece.

By all accounts, however, Papadopoulos eventually learned that this was a lie. Ms. Vinogradova was not related to Putin and she was probably using an alias.

It’s important to know when exactly Papadopoulos learned he was being duped, but for now all we know is that he was strung along for a very long time.  He kept in touch with “Vinogradova” throughout the spring, but he was passed off before long to another intelligence officer who was ostensibly working for the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. You can read about all this in the Special Counsel’s court filings, so I won’t retell the whole saga here.

What I want to focus on is the decision to misrepresent “Vinogradova” as a relative of Putin. She was, by Prof. Mifsud’s account, a very attractive woman. And he says that Papadopoulos’s initial interest in her was “very different from an academic one” and that he even tried to persuade her to travel to America with him, presumably for amorous reasons.

Using her as bait, they got Papadopoulos to enter into protracted negotiations to set up a summit between Putin and Trump. It’s not clear why the “niece” lie was necessary, and it certainly wasn’t prudent. It was discovered as a ruse by someone, and I can’t imagine it’s too difficult to keep track of Putin’s nieces, presuming he actually has any.

Papadopolous actually pitched his connections to Putin at a meeting with Trump on March 31st, 2016. So, the ruse paid immediate dividends. Why set Papadopolous to look like a dupe? Why jeopardize an easy connection to the top of the campaign with an operationally insecure and unnecessary lie?

One Papadopoulos email to Trump campaign officials said that the woman had offered “to arrange a meeting between us and the Russian leadership to discuss U.S.-Russia ties under President Trump.”

“I have already alerted my personal links to our conversation and your request,” Vinogradova said in an email to Papadopoulos in April, after Papadopoulos asked for help arranging a trip to Moscow.

“As mentioned we are all very excited by the possibility of a good relationship with Mr. Trump. The Russian Federation would love to welcome him once his candidature would be officially announced,” she added.

Perhaps the games they were playing with Papadopoulos got too real too fast, which may explain why there has a handoff to the officer working with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Still, the “niece” gambit didn’t go away. It appears to have been a pretty glaring error in tradecraft.

That it was used at all indicates to me a certain lack of seriousness and professionalism on the Russians’ part. But it also spells out how little regard they had for Trump’s prospects. They were willing to use Trump to move the Republican Party in a more pro-Russian direction, but they were more interested in humiliating and compromising his potential foreign policy team than in establishing long-lasting and trust-based relationships.

Now people will go looking for Olga Vinogradova. I don’t think they will find her. She was a mistake.

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