Putin's investment in the Czech Republic puts his dwindling influence on display

Putin's investment in the Czech Republic puts his dwindling influence on display
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Russian President Vladimir Putin’s foreign policy execution is driven by intelligence operations known as “active measures.” The term encompasses a set of operations, often relying on local leaders that collaborate (wittingly or unwittingly) with Russian special services, and are motivated by money or tricked into thinking that they share a mutual interest (or enemy).

Putin could once rely on European heavyweights such as German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder and Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi as allies promoting his agenda in the West. But his operational capabilities are weakening, and his foreign policy failures will compound as his pool of recruits is visibly diminishing in its caliber. Putin’s new friends are fringe players who have little influence and who are often isolated or shunned by their peers.

A prime example is Czech President Milos Zeman, who has been referred to as Putin’s “Trojan horse” in Europe. The Czech president received a royal welcome from Putin and Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev during his November trip to Russia. Russia is trying to shore up the embattled Zeman because everyone else in Europe is abandoning Putin.

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In the same spirit, Zeman is clinging to Putin to retain his own relevance. Putin’s sphere has supported Zeman from the start of his 2013 election campaign, and it makes sense that Russia would want to preserve its investment.

 

Yet, unfortunately for Putin, Zeman and his entourage have created negative press for the Russian president ever since Zeman was elected. The most recent incident took place during a May meeting with Putin in Beijing, where the Czech president suggested to a startled Putin that journalists should be liquidated. The threat was veiled as a joke, and the journalist community did not take it lightly especially because it was made in the presence of Putin, who has been accused of murdering journalists. Widespread condemnation ensued, entangling Putin in the scandal.

Despite the uproar, an unrepentant Zeman was later photographed with a fake Kalashnikov labeled “for journalists.”

When President TrumpDonald John TrumpDems flip Wisconsin state Senate seat Sessions: 'We should be like Canada' in how we take in immigrants GOP rep: 'Sheet metal and garbage' everywhere in Haiti MORE was elected, Zeman began promoting a story of his great friendship and private understanding with Trump, even claiming that he would be the link between Putin and Trump. Zeman claimed he would make a state visit to the White House, and started to organize a business and political delegation to join him as he established a trilateral axis between three “like-minded” leaders: himself, Putin and Trump.

Except the entire story turned out to be a sham: the White House snubbed Zeman. A scandal ensued, entangling Putin and Zeman and bringing U.S. scrutiny to Zeman’s inner circle and its ties to Putin.

Despite Zeman’s gaffes, his team members have performed even worse. Martin Nejedly, Zeman’s chief advisor, was in charge of organizing his alleged visit to the White House. He is prominently featured in a Department of Justice Foreign Agent disclosure form as the person who gave direction to lobbyists to arrange a meeting between Trump and Zeman. An article exposing Nejedly as the financial nexus between the Kremlin and Zeman earned a Pulitzer Prize for the New York Times series on Putin’s influence. Putin is prominently exposed in all stories covering Nejedly.

All this controversy and exposure by Team Zeman makes it challenging to understand why Putin is backing a man whose clumsy entourage brings unnecessary exposure to his operations. The answer must be that Putin is desperate, and gone are the days of having Italy’s charismatic Silvio Berlusconi or Germany’s effective Gerhard Schroder as allies. Clinging to the best of what’s left is Putin’s last resort.

James D. Durso (@James_Durso) is the managing director at consultancy firm Corsair LLC. He was a professional staff member at the 2005 Defense Base Closure and Realignment Commission and the Commission on Wartime Contracting in Iraq and Afghanistan, and served as a U.S. Navy officer for 20 years specializing in logistics and security assistance. His overseas military postings were in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, and he served in Iraq as a civilian transport advisor with the Coalition Provisional Authority. He served afloat as supply officer of the submarine USS SKATE (SSN 578).