Vladimir Putin pulled off a masterful active measure last week, catching the White House flat-footed when the Russian Foreign Ministry published pictures of Foreign Minister Lavrov, Ambassador Kislyak and President Trump enjoying a joke. White House officials expressed fury over the malicious set-up by the Russians, but it was too late: the mainstream media immediately got carried away with a new crisis that was provoked by Putin as part of his tenacious campaign to paint Trump as his puppet.
It was a mistake to admit the Russian photographer, but the White House deserves credit for stopping a similar active measure, designed for deadlier effect: the alleged state visit of Putin’s mouthpiece, Czech President Milos Zeman.
Zeman had claimed for months that he was invited by Trump for a state visit, and his team had worked the State Department, the National Security Council, White House staff, and even hired lobbyists to make it happen. Their intent was to combine the visit with insinuations about the Trump children’s Czech heritage (through their mother, Ivana) to suggest that Zeman was a bridge to Trump on behalf of Putin. While this may sound crude to American ears, it was effective propaganda in Europe, and gave pause to American allies there.
Zeman’s visit would have been a disaster for the embattled U.S. president, but it was averted by professional handling throughout the Trump administration, which deserves praise for counteracting this maneuver that may have compounded with the Lavrov provocation to deepen the crisis in Washington.
The administration has prevented the Zeman provocation, but the job is not done. Countermeasures are necessary. Active measures can only be accomplished with adequate funding, customarily accompanied by money laundering and other illicit financial activities.
It is crucial to examine the money trail around Zeman carefully, investigating his financial backers for the criminality or espionage that go hand in glove with Putin’s network of influence. Targeting illicit money flows is the most effective way to prevent further attempts by Putin’s surrogates to undermine Western democracy. A logical place to start is Zeman’s political financing.
The Bratislava-based Optifin Invest s.r.o. group of companies is reportedly the largest contributor to Zeman’s political campaign. It is owned by Alexej Beljajev, a Slovak national of Russian ethnicity. Czech media often describe him as the descendant of a Russian officer, and sources in Prague say Beljajev’s father was a high-ranking KGB officer.
Slovak media have reported Beljajev as Putin’s bridge to Central Europe. He is reported to know Putin personally. Beljajev’s firms have been actively engaged in business with Russian state-owned companies and receive money from them. For example, his firm participated in infrastructure construction projects for the Sochi Olympics.
Beljajev is also a friend and associate of Vladimir Yakunin, an FSB officer and the creator of a network of NGOs and businesses to promote Russian policy under the guise of pan-Slavic causes. This elaborate network stretches across Europe, and its associates support Kremlin political fronts such as Zeman.
Zeman’s campaign is financially managed by Martin Nejedly, who was directly involved in coordinating Zeman’s visit to Washington. The primary Kremlin connection associated with Nejedly is also Vladimir Yakunin. Zeman is a perennial guest of honor at Yakunin’s Rhodes Summit, a leading anti-NATO and pro-Putin political platform, and Russian organizers of the summit finance his trips there.
Zeman’s ally, Czech Finance Minister Andrej Babis, is another Russia-linked figure who shares a background with Beljajev. Their association goes back to the Cold War, when they worked together in Petrimex, the Czechoslovak foreign trading company tied to KGB chemicals-for-weapons trades in the Middle East and Africa. Babis also was part of Zeman’s purported delegation to meet Trump in the White House.
Czech and Slovak media allege ties between Beljajev and the underworld, which would fit with American and European intelligence community warnings that organized crime is a major element of Putin’s active measures. This calls for a more robust use of law enforcement to combat Russian influence. Unraveling Russian webs of associations and illicit monetary flows can be achieved only by a ‘whole of government’ approach using intelligence, law enforcement, diplomacy and public relations.
The United States and its allies must stop playing defense against Putin’s machinations aimed at destabilizing the West, but must work together to anticipate and prevent Russian operations. A desperate and economically weak Vladimir Putin is likely to step up his deadly active measures as he fights for survival.
In a recent hearing before the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, Roy Godson, a respected analyst of the intelligence wars, testified that Russian operations need to be anticipated and warnings should be disseminated among allies and through the media to mitigate the Russian advantage of surprise. This is an effective strategy that must be augmented by law enforcement operations designed to disable the money flow and take the fight to the source of Western troubles, especially the bank accounts that fund active measures. It is time for the U.S. government to lead the way in preventing the spread of this pernicious activity.
James D. 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).
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