Buried deep inside the 6,000 pages of the Consolidated Appropriations Act – 2021 that was signed into law on 27 December is a section that will be a game changer to combat malign Russian influence. It may bring some unwanted attention to Milos Zeman, Vladimir Putin’s favorite NATO leader.
Among other important matters, the law requires the CIA to report to Congress within 100 days: “A description of corruption and corrupt activities among Russian and other Eastern European oligarchs who support the Government of the Russian Federation, including estimates of the total assets of such oligarchs.”
And further: “A description and assessment of potential sanctions actions that could be imposed upon oligarchs covered by subparagraph (A) who support the leadership of the Government of Russia, including President Vladimir Putin.”
Biden Must Limit Putin’s Influence
As a presidential candidate, Joe Biden frequently accused President Trump of being deferential to Putin. When Biden assumes the Presidency, he will look for an easy way to make a visible show of strength against Putin. Milos Zeman is an obvious target.
If Biden wants to limit Putin’s power, he must cut off Putin’s economic and political fronts that corrupt, disrupt and destabilize our allies. The key is to identify the targets and forcefully deploy coercive policy instruments, including those defined in the December Appropriations Act. The operative word here is identification. We should not get bogged down defining the term ‘oligarch.’ We should focus instead on all individuals who carry out Putin’s influence, through political clout and kleptocracy.
Zeman: A Different Kind of Oligarch
President Zeman is not normally regarded as an oligarch by the media, but he is a more powerful agent of influence than any mining or industrial magnate. He disrupts his own national security in order to promote Putin’s agenda. He promotes Putin’s geopolitical interests, including Russian energy interests, at the expense of Western unity and opportunities for economic growth.
At Putin’s request, Zeman made the Czech Republic a point of entry for Chinese influence in the EU. Likewise, the Czech Republic is considered the gateway to Europe for the Russian security services. There are over 420 accredited Russian diplomats in the Czech Republic, compared to fewer than two dozen Czech diplomats in Russia.
President Zeman has repeatedly gone out of his way to insult U.S. ambassadors. His sneering attacks on former ambassador Shapiro on multiple occasions were the talk of diplomatic circles in Prague. He made public disrespect for America part of his conscious policy.
There is one constant in Zeman’s political career: he is surrounded by Russia and corruption scandals. His inner circle is a group of individuals accused of well-documented corruption and ties to Russian intelligence. U.S. Ambassador King has been circumspect in his assessment, saying simply that “people in Zeman’s inner circle are a problem.”
If Zeman protects, facilitates and commands his inner circle then he is the real boss. Does that make him an oligarch? Is all the money that has gone missing during his tenure as PM and President for his ultimate benefit? For the ultimate benefit of his family? Or is it to support and defend Vladimir Putin’s policies?
The CIA is well equipped to answer these questions, and the new law requires them to do so. Definitional dogmas shouldn’t prevent us from pursuing our national interest: neutralizing Putin’s agents of instability.