Raw intelligence Meduza spoke to all the likely sources behind the ‘Steele dossier.’ The report that forever transformed Donald Trump into a ‘Russian agent’ looks less and less convincing.
The Guardian once described it as among “the most explosive documents in modern political history,” but the “Steele dossier” — former British spy Christopher Steele’s opposition research against candidate Donald Trump — has wilted under scrutiny since it was first published in January 2017. Official investigations by the FBI and U.S. Justice Department Special Counsel Robert Mueller either did not corroborate or simply dismissed major claims in the report. The uncertainty surrounding the dossier owes largely to the anonymity of Steele’s sources, though journalists and online researchers have identified several individuals who allegedly supplied the report’s intelligence. Meduza contacted all these people to find out what they actually claimed about Donald Trump, whom they told, and what they think now about their role in a political scandal that still haunts America to this day.
- Virtually nothing verifiable was known about the Steele dossier’s sources until late October 2020, when The Wall Street Journal reported that a Russian public-relations executive named Olga Galkina provided key information that fueled some of the dossier’s most outlandish allegations against Donald Trump and his 2016 presidential campaign.
- Several months before the Journal’s report, a group of anonymous bloggers deciphered redacted FBI records to identify the Steele dossier’s likely sources, including its “primary subsource”: a Russian analyst named Igor Danchenko.
- Meduza contacted the individuals identified by these bloggers and asked them about their alleged roles in providing the intelligence contained in the Steele dossier. These people included two Russian journalists (not counting Olga Galkina, who previously worked for RIA Novosti), a former diplomat and intelligence officer, a former deputy mayor of Nizhny Novgorod, and a lecturer at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations.
- Nearly all these individuals confirmed that they are personally acquainted with Igor Danchenko, but they deny supplying him with any of the information that appeared in the Steele dossier.
- Igor Danchenko says he’s confident in his information-gathering, but he has declined to discuss his sources and methodology with journalists. He also denies any responsibility for how his contributions to the Steele dossier were ultimately presented in the report.
Amid allegations of bribery and hiring prostitutes to urinate on a hotel bed, one of the Steele dossier’s most shocking claims was that Donald Trump’s lawyer, Michael Cohen, met secretly in Prague with Kremlin officials in August 2016 to discuss “deniable cash payments” to hackers loyal to Russia, paying them to cover up supposed ties between Moscow and the Trump campaign. (Cohen denies this accusation and Robert Mueller’s investigation did not corroborate claims that Cohen traveled to Prague.)
Just last month, in October 2020, a source in the U.S. intelligence community finally revealed to the newspaper The Wall Street Journal that Christopher Steele’s information about Cohen’s alleged meeting in Prague came from a former RIA Novosti journalist named Olga Galkina.
The name of the man who links Galkina to the Steele dossier — Igor Danchenko, a former senior research analyst at the Brookings Institution — had already leaked to the press earlier this year, when Republicans in the Senate Judiciary Committee published a summary of the FBI’s interviews with him from 2017. The report, declassified by President Trump’s attorney general, was redacted, but bloggers quickly used clues left visible in the document to identify Danchenko, whose lawyer now verifies that he collected opposition research for Christopher Steele and told the FBI what he knew about the report on condition of anonymity.
Meduza explores how outing Igor Danchenko made it possible to identify the Steele dossier’s other sources. We then contacted these individuals to find out what they think now about their role in the report.
The “primary subsource”
The FBI report published on July 17, 2020, that summarizes three days of interviews with Igor Danchenko doesn’t mention his name or identify other sources, but the redacted excerpts are meticulously marked with labels like “Source 1,” “Russian Intelligence Officer,” and “USPER [U.S. person].” The edits describe Danchenko as the document’s “Primary Subsource.” It took a group of anonymous bloggers just two days to make the connection.
Anonymous online researchers used several tricks to unmask Danchenko. They decoded the number of characters in his name (apparent from the length of the black boxes used in the FBI’s redactions), studied the social circles of everyone associated with Christopher Steele’s “Orbis Intelligence” firm (knowing that “the primary subsource” got a monthly salary from the company), and calculated the lengths of other hidden words that served as hints about his biography, like his education in Perm (four characters) and his work at “PermTex” and “UralSibSpetsStrov” (7 and 17 characters).
Following these revelations, Danchenko’s lawyer effectively confirmed to The New York Times that his client was one of the Steele dossier’s sources. In July and August, the Russian state television network Russia Today and the conservative American website The Daily Caller (co-founded by right-wing Fox News host Tucker Carlson) also ran stories about Danchenko’s de-anonymization.
One of the dossier’s “key sources”
Olga Galkina was first connected publicly to the Steele dossier and Igor Danchenko in a tweet on July 21, 2020, by an anonymous Twitter user named @FOOL_NELSON, who told Meduza that he identified her by crosschecking details mentioned in the FBI report with open biographical data.
Danchenko told the FBI that his key source of information about the Trump campaign’s ties to Russia was a “close, personal friend” whom he’d helped financially over the years. The source’s initial version of events about Michael Cohen’s alleged meeting with Russian officials in Prague was “sketchy,” Danchenko told the FBI, but details piled up after a few months, like the name of a supposed hacker hired by the Trump team and the Kremlin: Sevastian Kaptsugovich.
First identified by @FOOL_NELSON and then again by The Wall Street Journal, Olga Galkina grew up in Perm, where she went to the same school as Danchenko. She would undoubtedly have recognized the name “Sevastian Kaptsugovich,” who happens to be an infamous local pedophile and pornographer now serving an 18-year prison sentence for sexually abusing children. (When the U.S. Democratic Party’s computer servers were hacked in 2016, Kaptsugovich was already three years into his prison term.)
According to the resume she posted on Habr.com, Galkina completed a law degree and then left Perm for Moscow, where she worked as a correspondent in Russia’s Parliament from 2003 to 2005 for the state-run news agency RIA Novosti. In her resume, she says she was honored in 2004 “for the best coverage of the State Duma’s activities.”
Over the next decade, Galkina migrated from journalism to public and government relations, serving as press secretary for Samara Governor Pavel Ipatov and as a spokesperson for Russia’s Environmental, Technological, and Nuclear Supervision Federal Service. In 2015, she managed a corporate magazine for an engineering company owned by the city of Moscow.
There is evidence that Galkina maintained ties to Kremlin official Timur Prokopenko. In 2015, the hacker group “Anonymous International” leaked correspondence where Galkina asked Prokopenko a year earlier to order his people to stop writing about her. Implying that he “owed” her, Galina also asked Prokopenko to retract allegations printed in the newspaper Izvestia that she had approached opposition figure Alexey Navalny in late 2010 about a possible collaboration. In the end, Galkina’s name disappeared from Izvestia’s story (though archived copies of the original text are still available online).
When Igor Danchenko supposedly asked Olga Galkina to dig up dirt about Donald Trump, she’d been living in Cyprus for several years already, working as a public-relations executive for the enterprise hosting company “Webzilla” (a subsidiary of “XBT Holding,” which belongs to Alexey Gubarev). According to The Wall Street Journal, Galkina clashed with her employer to the point that Webzilla actually filed a police report against her, alleging that she was often late to work and sometimes arrived heavily intoxicated. After she was fired, Galkina even threatened to sue Gubarev in a Cypriot court for “stealing documents from her juvenile son” and “trying to ruin her professional reputation,” but she never filed an actual lawsuit, according to the newspaper Kommersant (which later deleted its report).
Alexey Gubarev did not respond to Meduza’s questions.
Sources told The Wall Street Journal that Galkina was in the process of being fired when she fed information to Danchenko blaming her employer for breaking into the Democratic National Committee’s servers. Describing Gubarev as a “hacking expert” recruited by Russia’s intelligence community, Galkina allegedly supplied the Steele dossier’s allegations against Webzilla.
Gubarev ultimately lost a defamation lawsuit against BuzzFeed, which published the Steele dossier, but the news outlet later redacted his name and the names of his companies from its copy of the report and apologized for including them.
Ivan Zykov says he knows Olga Galkina and doubts that she would have indulged in such “revenge” against a former employer. Galkina is a sought-after commodity in her industry, Zykov told Meduza, and “wouldn’t start some kind of war” over one job. Other acquaintances paint a different picture, however. A former colleague in Cyprus named Alexey Trankov told Meduza that he suspects Galkina suffers from “serious mental problems.”
Igor Danchenko did not respond to Meduza’s questions about whether or not he crosschecked the information he allegedly received from Galkina, who also did not respond to Meduza’s phone calls or online messages, though she told RIA Novosti that The Wall Street Journal’s report is inaccurate.
The Steele dossier’s other sources
Anonymous researchers have used the same “crossword puzzle” approach to identify Danchenko’s other sources hidden behind the FBI’s redactions. Internet users are confident that they’ve managed to name everyone in the declassified report, and Daily Caller writer Chuck Ross has confirmed some of these findings.
Half a dozen bloggers, including one Russian-speaker, exposed the identities of another six supplementary sources who provided intelligence to Christopher Steele through Igor Danchenko. Chuck Ross also helped name “Source 1” and “Source 2,” who are apparently Sergey Abyshev (Nizhny Novgorod’s former deputy mayor, then the deputy director of an Energy Ministry department) and Ivan Vorontsov (the founder and editor-in-chief of Banks-Finance.ru).
Ross contributed to the de-anonymization work by studying Vorontsov’s Facebook photos, where he found an image from the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum on June 16, 2016 (the picture has been deleted, but it’s archived online), where Vorontsov “tagged” Igor Danchenko and Sergey Abyshev. Ross then tracked down Abyshev, who confirmed that he met with Vorontsov and Danchenko, albeit in Moscow a few days before the conference in St. Petersburg. Four days after Vorontsov shared the image on Facebook, Christopher Steele wrote the first of the reports that would later comprise his dossier.
A financial reporter
Of all the “activities” and “compromising relationships” Steele attributed to Donald Trump in Russia, perhaps nothing generated more controversy than allegations that Trump paid sex workers to urinate on the presidential suite’s bed at the Moscow Ritz-Carlton, where the Obamas once stayed during an official visit to Russia. In the FBI’s declassified report, Danchenko credited “Source 2” with this information. In other words, he supposedly heard it from journalist Ivan Vorontsov, though Danchenko admitted to the FBI that he was unable to corroborate the rumor, even after questioning hotel staff. Steele nevertheless included the story in his dossier without any qualifications.
Asked if he supplied Danchenko with the infamous “golden shower” intelligence, Ivan Vorontsov laughed out loud before telling Meduza: “No, it wasn’t me. You’d need to have been there to tell such stories. I’m hearing about the mattress and Trump for the first time in my life. And this is the first time I’m hearing that Igor could somehow be connected to something like that. In conversations, he’s never let anything like that slip.”
Vorontsov says he first met Igor Danchenko about eight years ago at “some oil sector forum in Moscow.” “He said he’s an expert at one of the companies in Washington and he works on preparing analytical reports about various industries, which is why he was at the oil forum,” Vorontsov told Meduza. “He and I agreed immediately that, as a news agency, I could keep him informed about banks and finance, but I have no insider information, so I’d hardly be interesting to him in this sense.”
“He and I didn’t discuss anything — I’ve always been wary of Russian citizens who work for some analytical company, especially when it’s in the United States,” said Vorontsov.
Vorontsov says he last saw Danchenko about a year ago at the Eurasian Economic Forum in Verona, Italy, in October 2019. “Judging by how Igor behaved, he’d only come to [for the booze],” Vorontsov recalls. “He didn’t offer me any [information] and I didn’t ask him anything. I told him, ‘Let’s drink and be friends. No business and no politics.’ ‘It’s a deal,’ he said.”
A state official and his friend, Russia’s former Foreign Intelligence Service chief
Sergey Abyshev, the FBI report’s supposed “Source 1,” told The Daily Caller that he met Danchenko back in 2002 as part of the “Open World” program’s visit to the Library of Congress, where Danchenko was working as a translator.
In 2015, the Expertus publishing house released a book titled “Energy of the Great Victory,” commissioned by Russia’s Energy Ministry and co-authored by Abyshev and Danchenko, among others. Abyshev did not respond to The Daily Caller’s questions about whether he provided intelligence to Danchenko that later appeared in the Steele dossier, but he confirmed to Meduza that he’s known Danchenko for many years and denied giving him any information for Christopher Steele’s opposition research.
The FBI’s declassified report summarizing its interviews with Danchenko also mentions a “Russian intelligence officer” with close ties to “Source 1” who allegedly confirmed that Moscow has compromising materials about Donald Trump. Bloggers believe this source is Vyacheslav Trubnikov, a Russian diplomat and intelligence officer who served as an ambassador extraordinary and plenipotentiary in India and as director of Russia’s Russian Foreign Intelligence Service until 2000.
Abyshev confirmed to Meduza that he knows Trubnikov, though he says they became acquainted only in May 2017, after the events described in the Steele dossier and Danchenko’s FBI interview. Abyshev says he believes Danchenko was referring to the former spy chief when he spoke to the U.S. federal agents. Asked if he told Abyshev anything about dirt supposedly gathered by the Russian government against Trump, Trubnikov told Meduza: “It never happened.”
An oil and gas reporter
Another bombshell contained in the Steele dossier that Danchenko addressed in his interviews with the FBI concerns allegations that Trump’s foreign policy advisor, Carter Page, met with Rosneft CEO Igor Sechin to discuss opportunities for bilateral cooperation in the energy sector and an end to sanctions imposed against Russia because of Ukraine.
Online sleuths say the source for these claims, identified in the declassified FBI report as “Source 5,” is actually Lyudmila Podobedova, a journalist who writes about the oil and gas industry for the news outlet RBC.
“I first met Igor Danchenko in person in 2019 and did not give him the information he attributes to me in his 2016 report,” Podobedova told Meduza. “We met in Berlin in 2019 after the Russian Gas Society Convention, where I was traveling on assignment. We talked about things unrelated to my work.”
A source at a Russian business publication told Meduza that rumors about Page and Sechin meeting in Moscow did, in fact, circulate among journalists, but reporters were never able to corroborate the story. Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation ultimately did not establish that Page coordinated with the Russian government in Moscow’s alleged efforts to interfere with the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
A teacher and a business-group leader
Igor Danchenko mentioned another two individuals in his interviews with the FBI, designated as “Source 4” and “Source 6.”
Anonymous Twitter users exposed the former source as Alexey Dundich, a lecturer and deputy dean for Academic and Methodological Work at MGIMO’s International Relations Department. Danchenko told the FBI that he was in regular contact with “Source 4,” though he apparently provided none of the information that made it into the Steele dossier. Dundich confirmed to Meduza that he’s known Igor Danchenko for more than a decade, since about 2008.
“Source 6” is believed to be Sergey Millian, a Belarus-born U.S. citizen and head of a Russian-American business group who previously met with Donald Trump directly. In January 2017, weeks after the Steele dossier was published, The Wall Street Journal first identified him as someone who “passed along unverified allegations of Donald Trump’s ties to Russia.” Millian has never met or spoken to Danchenko and he’s spent the past several years denying any role in the Steele dossier.
Should we believe the bloggers’ attributions?
The information online sleuths managed to decipher in the FBI’s declassified report about its interviews with Igor Danchenko amounts to working hypotheses — some more reliable than others. Claims about sources’ identities could be confirmed or refuted in the future.
For example, Internet researchers initially believed Source 4 was Ivan Kurilla, a professor of history and international relations at European University at St. Petersburg, but this attribution was later abandoned in favor of MGIMO’s Alexey Dundich. Meanwhile, some “reconstituted” versions of the FBI report now floating around online still identify “Source 4” as Professor Kurilla.
Some bloggers have also advocated questionable interpretations, like the claim that Vyacheslav Trubnikov appears in the FBI report as both a former and active intelligence officer. While his professional background and the length of his name make it highly plausible that Trubnikov is the report’s “former Russian intelligence officer,” the data points don’t line up to suggest persuasively that Danchenko described him as someone still in Russia’s foreign service.
The Steele dossier, published by BuzzFeed in 2017, just 10 days before Donald Trump’s inauguration, was an overnight national sensation. Jane Mayer of The New Yorker called it “perhaps the most controversial opposition research ever to emerge from a presidential campaign.” During a press conference in Moscow, in response to a question about the report, Vladimir Putin referred to the supposedly micturating sex workers as “girls of limited social responsibility” — an awkward phrase that endures today as a Russian Internet meme.
People named in the Steele dossier and some of the report’s own sources have filed lawsuits against those who collected the information, published the report, and even commented on it. For the most part, however, these legal efforts have failed. In December 2018, for example, a Florida judge sided with BuzzFeed against “XBT Holding” owner Alexey Gubarev, ruling that journalists maintain the right to publish even unverified or defamatory information if it’s contained in an official government document or statement.
Republican Senator Lindsey Graham has feuded publicly with Igor Danchenko, hinting that he is a Russian spy. In September 2020, thanks to efforts by Senator Graham, the FBI declassified a report revealing that the agency had investigated Danchenko (“the primary subsource”) back in 2009. When Danchenko’s lawyer threatened in October 2020 to sue Graham for defamation, the senator reminded him that U.S. laws protect state officials from such lawsuits if potentially defamatory statements are made in the course of their official duties. (Senator Graham insinuated Danchenko’s ties to Russian intelligence during an official government hearing.)
Donald Trump’s former lawyer, Michael Cohen, filed charges against BuzzFeed and “Fusion GPS,” which commissioned the Steele dossier, but he dropped the lawsuit in April 2018 after federal agents raided his home and office.
BuzzFeed’s decision to publish the Steele dossier’s full text sparked fierce debates among journalists and pundits about the merits of sharing such explosive, yet unverified, information. The report had circulated for months within U.S. political circles and the media establishment, but other news outlets declined to release the dossier. Ben Smith, then BuzzFeed’s editor-in-chief, argued that the American people had a right to know what was secretly influencing U.S. journalists and politicians. “Publishing this document was not an easy or simple call, and people of good will may disagree with our choice. But publishing this dossier reflects how we see the job of reporters in 2017,” Smith explained in an all-staff email at the time.
The publication itself bears the following message to readers: “Now BuzzFeed News is publishing the full document so that Americans can make up their own minds about allegations about the president-elect that have circulated at the highest levels of the U.S. government.”
Now a media columnist with The New York Times, Ben Smith says he’s still confident that he made the right decision. “The reasons we published it haven't changed — we said at the time it was unverified, but playing a big role in American government and politics, and that's why we published it,” he told Meduza. “None of that has changed, and I'm glad you and others are reporting out the sources of the allegations.”
Igor Danchenko, the analyst at the heart of the Steele dossier, declined to discuss his “sources and methods” with Meduza, saying that he already stated his case in interviews with The Guardian and The New York Times, where he emphasized that he gathered only “raw intelligence” for Mr. Steele and marked potentially dubious claims as “red flags.” Danchenko also said that he bears no responsibility for how his information was presented in the report, and he points out that he isn’t the one who published it.
Abridged translation by Kevin Rothrock