In his much-commented 60 Minutes interview this week, Donald Trump breezily dismissed the idea that accepting information on political rivals from foreign sources was untoward. “It’s not an interference, they have information,” he said. “I think I’d take it. If I thought there was something wrong, I’d go maybe to the FBI.”
Thus the man who routinely indulges in the fantasy that a collective of American spies is arranging his downfall has no compunction about letting foreign spies arrange the downfall of his opponents. It all depends on what gifts they come bearing.
But the trouble with inviting foreign countries into your political system is that once they accept the invitation they never leave. A new study I’ve co-edited, published by the Free Russia Foundation, offers a chilling tour d’horizon of how the Kremlin has walked right into the judiciaries, interior ministries, ballot boxes, campaign coffers and even spy services of Europe, all because domestic politicians initially waved them in. The broad conclusion of “Misrule of Law,” as the report is titled, is that instead of a Europe whole and free, we’ve got one partly subsidized and dangerously subservient to Vladimir Putin.
Perhaps the earliest instance of how foreign interests helped determine an unscrupulous presidency occurred in the Czech Republic (now Czechia) with the unlikely rise of Miloš Zeman. Like many European populists, Zeman began as an anti-Communist, served in post-Communist government (he was prime minister for four years), then wound up as an outspoken friend of Moscow.
That unimprovable German expression, Putinversteher, or “Putin explainer,” doesn’t quite do justice to Zeman because even the crudest apologist wouldn’t implicate his own country in an act of state terrorism conducted by another.
Zeman has suggested that the novichok nerve agent used to try to murder Sergei and Yulia Skripal in Salisbury last year came not from Russia, the only place where this it is manufactured as a military weapon, but from a lab in Czechia. His source? A flimsy conspiracy theory peddled by the Russian Foreign Ministry to misdirect blame onto the West for the failed assassination.
Zeman might well have disappeared from public life after his term as prime minister ended in 2002 but for the intervention of two men who helped him win the office of the presidency 10 years later. The first was Vladimir Yakunin, a former KGB officer turned oligarch and president of Russia’s state-owned rail monopoly, now sanctioned by the United States for his role in the annexation of Crimea.
To quote from “Misrule of Law”: “Yakunin instantly befriended the former prime minister and invited him to the Greek island of Rhodes, where Yakunin organizes his annual ‘Dialogue of Civilizations’ conference, which is nicknamed by Western intelligence professionals as a ‘KGB team-building’ exercise.”
The second man to rehabilitate Zeman was Martin Nejedlý, a former Czech volleyball player who spent much of the 1990s mingling with Russia’s political elite. Upon his return to Prague, he established a Czech subsidiary of Lukoil, one of Russia’s largest oil companies, becoming an oligarch himself and also Zeman’s consigliere and fixer. But because his time in Moscow remains a mystery, Nejedlý can’t get a security clearance or a proper job in the presidential administration. His role is that of an “informal” adviser to Zeman, or boyar without portfolio, even though no one is quite sure who else he might be advising and even though he still earns untold sums of income from the Russian energy sector, a tool of Russian foreign policy and blackmail.
Or consider the curious case of France’s National Rally, whose finances were shown to be connected to questionable Russian sources, yet which nonetheless remains a viable far-right political party, which did remarkably well in the recent European election.
In 2014, Marine Le Pen’s National Front, as the National Rally was then known, took out a loan for $12.2 million from a dubious financial institution called the First Czech-Russian Bank. As of 2003, the bank was owned by Stroytransgaz, a Russian engineering company, controlled by Gennady Timchenko, another Russian oligarch now sanctioned by the Treasury Department over the invasion of Ukraine. Timchenko’s financial empire—which at the time included a Swiss commodities trading giant suspected of money-laundering—was bound up with Putin’s personal wealth, according to U.S. officials.
The disclosure that an extremist French party had accepted money from a Russian bank with ties to the Russian president caused a scandal, albeit not a large enough one to stop Le Pen from advancing to the second round of the 2017 French presidential election. And it wasn’t the whole story.
As The Washington Post later revealed, by 2016 the First Czech-Russian Bank had been dissolved and the National Front’s loan was transferred to Aviazapchast, an aircraft supply company based out of Moscow whose origins lie in the Soviet military-industrial complex. “The company is deeply intertwined with the Russian military,” the Post reported. “Three of the four executives listed on its website spent decades in the Soviet and Russian armed forces. The company holds a government-secrets license from Russia’s FSB security service.”
It seems likely that Aviazapchast is even more “intertwined” with the GRU, Russia’s military intelligence service, the true culprit behind the botched Skripal snuffing and the hacking of the Democratic Party accounts in the lead-up to the 2016 U.S. election. The No. 2 executive of Aviazapchast is a former Soviet GRU spy named Yevgeny Barmyantsev. According to the Post, he was “expelled from the United States after federal agents caught him retrieving documents from the base of a tree in Maryland.”
Le Pen lost the 2017 presidential election to Emmanuel Macron, but not before GRU hackers breached the latter’s En Marche! campaign, releasing “diverse documents, such as emails, accounting documents and contracts,” first via the far-right 4chan web forum and then onto other social media platforms. Some of this material, En Marche! insisted, was falsified, belying the notion that foreign-borne “oppo research,” as Trump called it in that 60 Minutes interview, can be adequately vetted for accuracy.
In Hungary, the GRU’s open collaboration with the far right has gone much further. Not long ago, operatives from that service were caught providing military training to members of the Hungarian National Front, founded by a man named István Győrkös, who had long been under surveillance by Hungarian counterintelligence for his subversive activities.
In 2017, the equivalent of the country’s FBI raided the septuagenarian’s home only to be shot at. One officer was killed, after which “illegal automatic weapons of unknown origin,” to quote one press account, were discovered at nine properties owned by the Hungarian National Front.
GRU officers, all living legally in Hungary under diplomatic cover, had been training Győrkös’s fascists in infantry tactics using paintball guns. Even more remarkable is what a retired intelligence officer publicly told an interviewer about Russia’s buildup of a heavily armed neo-Nazi fifth column on the territory of a NATO member-state.
Experts with years of experience countering Russian espionage had been “redirected” in the Hungarian intelligence community, as Ferenc Katrein, a former member of its ranks, euphemistically put it in a startling interview with Hungarian news outlet Index in 2017. “We were not allowed to perform active operations that were necessitated by professional considerations and international cooperation was less intense than in previous years,” Katrein continued.
Asked specifically about the GRU operation, the retired spook added that there was “no professional reason” why Hungarian counterintelligence failed to disrupt it sooner, especially given that it constituted such a high-priority national security threat that the political leadership will have been briefed on it.
That may be why action wasn’t taken sooner. Katrein did not explicitly mention the name Viktor Orbán or his ruling Fidesz party, but he didn’t have to. Orbán’s fondness for Putin, his loathing of migrants, his disrespect for the European Union, and hostility toward civil society and a critical press — all have acted as a template for populist movements throughout the Continent and, at least aspirationally, across the Atlantic. “Trump before Trump" is how Steve Bannon, now huffing mightily on the embers of ultra-nationalism from Rome to London, described the Hungarian prime minister.
“Redirecting” spies away from Russia is no mere hypothetical in the U.S. context; it’s the reason American spies aren’t telling Trump what they’re up to.
Following the New York Times exclusive outlining the U.S. Cyber Command’s deep cyber penetration of Russia’s electrical power grid, Trump took to Twitter to denounce the story as a “a virtual act of Treason,” and deny its veracity. But what caught other people’s attention was the revelation buried deep within the article that the “Pentagon and intelligence officials described broad hesitation to go into detail with Mr. Trump about operations against Russia for concern over his reaction—and the possibility that he might countermand it or discuss it with foreign officials, as he did in 2017 when he mentioned a sensitive operation in Syria to the Russian foreign minister.”
“Russia, if you're listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing,” the future American president said at a news conference in July 2016, referring to digital correspondence his opponent stored on a personal computer server when she was secretary of state. “Within approximately five hours of Trump's statement, GRU officers targeted for the first time Clinton’s personal office,” Robert Mueller’s report states. FBI Director Christopher Wray now warns that Russia and other hostile foreign powers will try to influence the 2020 U.S. presidential race.
The incumbent, meanwhile, still isn’t sure there’s anything wrong with that.