op-ed

Putin’s War Dogs in Europe

The Czech parliamentary elections just turned in a spectacular victory for Andrej Babis, the populist billionaire who, despite long-time accusations of alignment with Vladimir Putin, pleasantly surprised the West last month by acknowledging the illegal nature of Russia’s aggression in annexing Crimea.

In the upcoming presidential elections in January, will Czechs favor President Milos Zeman, Babis’s political ally known for servitude to Putin?¬†Zeman’s many services have included publicly humiliating the U.S. Ambassador, promoting anti-West and anti-NATO propaganda, anti-Ukraine propaganda, and pro-Assad propaganda — all services the Kremlin appreciates. No wonder the Washington Post calls him “a virtual mouthpiece” for Putin.

Less well known in the West is Zeman’s role in the Ali Fayyad affair, where he pressured the Czech government on behalf of Putin to release a Hezbollah arms dealer wanted for extradition to the U.S. This was seen widely at the time as an attempt to cover up Fayyad’s Russia ties. Most recently, at October’s Council of Europe summit, he shocked the rest of Europe by declaring Russian occupation of Crimea a fait accompli. He said it should be recognized by Ukraine and the world in return for “compensation,” so sanctions could be lifted and the world could “move on.”

What is the source of Zeman’s power? His inner circle shows strong Russian influence. The old guard consists of Martin Nejedly, a former director of Lukoil who is nicknamed Putin’s paymaster, and Alexej Beljajev, who is connected to U.S.-sanctioned Russian intelligence officer Vladimir Yakunin. A new actor in Zeman’s circle is a former scrap dealer who has become the biggest weapons trader in Eastern Europe, Jaroslav Strnad. Strnad, known in Prague as the “King of Arms Traders,” is Beljajev’s investment partner and the top financial supporter of President Zeman.

Advocacy for a Hezbollah arms dealer is suspicious activity for a Czech President, but coupled with his statements at a recent arms show, things come into focus. Zeman encouraged the issuance of export licenses to countries that have a high risk of re-export. Why would Zeman encourage arms proliferation?¬†Was he acting on Putin’s behalf, or could there be a Czech arms exporter working in the interest of Russians?

The answer to those questions came like a thief in the night with recent news about diplomatic flights carrying weapons to conflict zones, using highly suspicious transportation methods that possibly violate international agreements. Hidden among many other shipments were some made by the Czechoslovak Group (CSG), owned by Zeman’s friend and sponsor Strnad. Diplomatic cover for the flights meant that no customs officer ever checked the cargo contents against the shipping manifests; the hours the planes spent in the protected diplomatic part of airports meant that cargo could be loaded or offloaded without law enforcement oversight.

In July, an Armenian paper stated that according to government sources, Strnad has engaged with Iranian nationals and Kurdish organized crime groups in schemes to re-export arms, spare parts and other restricted materiel to embargoed countries such as Iran, Yemen, Syria and Libya. The sources expressed concern that countries in the Caucasus would become a platform to circumvent sanctions.

Sure enough, in September, international observers of Azerbaijan’s military parade noted two new weapons systems, the DANA artillery and the Vampir MLRS, both refurbished and upgraded by CSG. The Czech Foreign Ministry said that although the undercarriages were shipped legally, it appears that the weapons components were shipped from Slovakia using end user certificates approved for sale to Israel.

CSG refused to respond to my inquiry about the end-user certificates, and whether they were aware that Israel would ship the weapons to Azerbaijan. Why did CSG ship the (dual-use) undercarriages for the weapons directly to Azerbaijan, but use an end run from Slovakia via Israel to ship the lethal components? How did they get the end user certificates from the Slovak government, and what exactly do those certificates say?

It is reasonable to tie these facts together: Strnad is Zeman’s top financial sponsor, and his partner is linked to a Russian intelligence officer; Zeman pressures his government to release a Hezbollah arms trader; Zeman calls for lifting restrictions on the re-export of arms; Strnad is implicated in a shadowy arms shipping scheme using civilian flights and diplomatic cover; Strnad is spotted meeting with Iranians regarding shipping arms to conflict zones; and Strnad’s company appears to be involved in circumventing an arms embargo.

Is Strnad the new Ali Fayyad, or is he just useful to Zeman, Beljajev and Yakunin to funnel Russian money to Zeman? Ongoing investigations into him and CSG by Czech authorities will likely answer the question, but the Justice Department should not wait for the outcome of the Czech inquiry. An independent investigation into Zeman and his inner circle is in U.S. national security interests.

While Democratic clones in Washington continue to look for a Russian behind every Trump shadow, those of us researching Putin’s definite ties to infiltrate NATO have literally found the smoking guns. We have uncovered the war dogs of Europe, and they seemingly work for Moscow.

David Hursey is an analyst of international affairs who has worked on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC and several presidential and congressional campaigns. He holds a Master’s degree in Near East Studies and Political Science.