Elephants in the Room

Putin Is Poisoning Prague

Russian corruption starts small but quickly spreads.

Investigators collate forensic samples near the Maltings shopping center in Salisbury, England, on March 16, as investigations continue after a former Russian spy and his daughter were apparently poisoned in a nerve agent attack on March 4.
(Ben Stansall/AFP/Getty Images)
Investigators collate forensic samples near the Maltings shopping center in Salisbury, England, on March 16, as investigations continue after a former Russian spy and his daughter were apparently poisoned in a nerve agent attack on March 4. (Ben Stansall/AFP/Getty Images)

In President Vladimir Putin’s zero-sum worldview, elevating Russia to the status of a superpower doesn’t require strengthening his own country but rather weakening the West’s post-Cold War order. The West needs to be more attuned to all aspects of Putin’s troublemaking — specifically his strategic deployment of corruption.

Take the case of his years-long, methodical campaign to enfeeble the Czech Republic with corruption. As a result, this stalwart member of NATO has become an embarrassing pro-Russia mouthpiece that excuses China’s antics in the South China Sea and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. More importantly, it radiates Kremlin-sponsored corruption across Europe.

Putin’s corruption starts small but quickly spreads. For example, Czech media has questioned the source of funds that spurred the rapid growth of the Strnad family, owners of the Czechoslovak Group (CSG), from humble scrap dealers a few years ago to one of the Czech Republic’s largest arms dealers with a near-monopoly on the sector. One of the Strnads’ main investors, Alexej Beljajev, has had business ties to Vladimir Yakunin, a reportedly vociferous Russian nationalist and Orthodox extremist who himself has had close ties to Putin. (Yakunin denies holding such views.)

Jaroslav Strnad is the primary financial backer of another friend of Vladimir Yakunin: pro-Russian Czech President Milos Zeman, a foul-mouthed, drunken apparatchik who used Russian covert and overt help to win the presidency. Unfortunately, the United States has never taken the threat represented by Zeman seriously. (President Barack Obama did little more than deny Zeman a White House visit. President Donald Trump likes Zeman because the Czech president flatters him.)

The Strnads, for their part, should have caught U.S. attention when they appeared to violate a European Union arms embargo and NATO policy by selling weapons to Azerbaijan for use against Armenia; the Azeris exposed the sale by helpfully putting the weapons in a military parade. (Full disclosure: I have independently done work on behalf of Armenian and Azeri advocacy groups.) Czech officials implausibly claimed the weapons were intended for Israel. The bright if brief international scandal didn’t spur U.S. action against the Czech government.

(After publication of this article, CSG offered comment. “Contrary to any innuendo, the fact is CSG orients its business and has significant customers in the West, specifically Europe and the United States,” says Lanny Davis, an attorney representing CSG.)

Prague should not be considered an insignificant place easily sacrificed to a strategy of “America First” or “strategic retrenchment.” The Czech Republic is a crucial front-line NATO ally that suffered in World War II, suffered under Stalin, got crushed by Leonid Brezhnev in 1968, and whose brave revolutionaries helped bring a peaceful end to Soviet communism. Moscow’s ultimate goal is not a Czech government with a Kremlin mandate. It is to convert Prague into an amplifier of Russian mischief.

Since the First Defenestration of Prague in 1419, Prague’s predicaments have become others’ predicaments. It matters now like then or in 1968, if for different reasons. Already, the tentacles of just this one case of corruption stretch from Yerevan to Paris (and Washington).

There is no deal that will halt the Kremlin’s behavior because the goal is not to achieve any policy aim in Prague — or Kiev or wherever else it aims its hybrid war. The goal is chaos, because that means a weaker West. And Putin is leveraging people like the Strnads to that end.

The West must confront Putin’s nonsense before its knock on effects grow. Unfortunately, Washington is distracted — whether in the form of Trump’s bizarre refusal to criticize Putin, out-of-control Republican partisanship hell-bent on defending Trump, or Democrats’ obsession with the Trump/Russia collusion narrative — and thus not paying attention to how Putin is attacking the United States.

Putin’s recent rhetoric about Russia’s new nuclear weapons notwithstanding, Russia is not a superpower. But Russia can cause trouble that festers, and it is doing so already in places like the Czech Republic. Washington needs to stop waiting for the big Russian strategic threats because they will never materialize. Instead, it is the little stuff like the Strnads that matter. When Washington detects such sparks, it needs to extinguish them before they spread.

Corrections, March 20, 2018: An earlier version of this article mistakenly described a financial relationship between the Czechoslovak Group and First Czech-Russian Bank. It also incorrectly stated the relationship between Alexej Beljajev, Vladimir Yakunin, and Vladimir Putin.

Kristofer Harrison was a Defense and State Department advisor during the George W. Bush administration, and is a principal of ITJ Strategies.

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