John Sparks, Moscow Correspondent
If you have a couple of hours to spare and an interest in Russian politics, I think it is a safe bet that you will find the 35-page dossier, written by former British MI6 intelligence officer Christopher Steele, a fascinating read.
His uncorroborated research, commissioned and paid for by Donald Trump’s political opponents, contains a series of allegations that revolve around one central claim – that Russia has been “cultivating, supporting and assisting” the President-elect and his team for the past five years.
Mr Steele’s memos suggest that Trump’s campaign team – led by a lobbyist called Paul Manafort – backed Russia’s leak of Democratic Party emails to WikiLeaks and offered political favours on Ukraine in return.
Mr Manafort was forced to quit as campaign chair last August after financial records showed he was allocated $12.7m (£10.4m) in undisclosed payments from a pro-Russian political party in Ukraine.
If some of the allegations relayed by Christopher Steele are true, members of Mr Trump’s campaign team could be found guilty of treasonable conduct.
The most explosive claims relate to Mr Trump’s alleged sexual behaviour on a couple of business trips to Russia. Mr Steele says the politician’s bedroom antics were filmed by Russian’s security services and held as “kompromat” (compromising material) that could be used against him at a later date.
The director of the US intelligence services, James Clapper, says he has not taken a view of the reliability of this information – although a two-page summary was provided for President Obama and Mr Trump.
That suggests the American authorities judge the work of Mr Steele with a certain level of credibility – and he is a man with an excellent reputation amongst his peers.
The best way to view Mr Steele’s dossier is as a working paper – a political hypothesis which tries to address a question that has baffled dozens of academics and international relations experts over the past 12 months: why is Donald Trump so sympathetic to Vladimir Putin, an authoritarian, nationalist and profoundly anti-American strongman?
Much of what Mr Steele says seems plausible – if unproven.
For example, the Russian federal security services (FSB) have long used sex as a means to blackmail and coerce their victims.
Last year, former Russian prime minister Mikhail Kasyanov was filmed in his own flat as he conducted an affair with a party aid.
The pictures were shown on Kremlin-friendly television station NTV several months before parliamentary elections – a poll Mr Kasyanov was running in. The 59-year-old opposition politician is convinced the FSB was responsible.
President Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, argues that Russia does not collect “kompromat” – but that’s simply not credible.
Mr Putin himself, when he headed up the intelligence service, rolled out compromising material at a press conference in 1999 to sink one of Boris Yeltsin’s rivals.
Christopher Steele also tackles the sudden demotion last summer of Vladimir Putin’s long-time friend and chief of staff, Sergei Ivanov, who was reassigned as special envoy for transport in a shock move.
At the time, Mr Putin said Mr Ivanov wanted to “try something different” – but few people in Moscow bought it.
Mr Steele offers a more plausible account: that Mr Ivanov lost his job after providing poor advice on the Kremlin’s “pro-Trump, anti-Clinton” operation. The former British spy says Mr Ivanov’s youngish replacement was selected because he had no prior involvement in the scheme.
However, there are serious concerns with Mr Steele’s research.
He quotes a dizzying array of different sources – a senior Russian Foreign Ministry figure, a former top-level Russian intelligence officer, a senior Russian financial officer, a senior Kremlin official, an ethnic Russian who is a close associate of Donald Trump – and so on.
In a country where most citizens are scared to talk and absolutely secrecy in government is expected, people are bound to ask how he collected, managed – and is able to trust – so many sources.
Furthermore, there are serious inconsistencies in his assertions.
Mr Steele says Mr Trump’s lawyer Michael Cohen met with Russian officials in Prague in late August or early September of last year.
Not true, says Mr Cohen, who tweeted: “I have never been to Prague in my life” – along with a picture of his passport.
And then there is the former chief of staff Sergei Ivanov again, who in a memo dated 5 August was depicted as relatively cautious – a man worried about a backlash against Russia as the hacking scandal blew up.
However, on 14 September, Mr Steele asserts that Mr Ivanov was fired by Mr Putin because his advice in support of pro-Trump operation was seen as recklessly enthusiastic.
So: where does that leave us? Well, consider this point. If some of the allegations relayed by Mr Steele are true – and remember, this a man who reportedly headed up British intelligence’s investigation into the murder of Alexander Litvinenko in 2006 – members of Mr Trump’s campaign team could be found guilty of treasonable conduct.
It would be, in the words of one former US intelligence official, “the most shocking political scandal in American history”.
The stakes are high, and I for one think Mr Steele’s work will linger around Donald Trump for months and months to come.
Sky Views is a series of comment pieces by Sky News editors and correspondents, published every morning.
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