Putin's Black Arms
This month at IDET, the annual Czech arms show in Brno, Czech President Milos Zeman issued a broadside against his own diplomatic service for holding up arms export licensing and advocated for issuing export licenses to countries that pose a high risk of re-exports. In other words, Zeman expressed his support for the black market for arms and criticized his own diplomatic service for hindering it. For this, the diplomats deserve commendation from their peers in the West for standing up to pressure from the President.
If history is a guide, Zeman’s advisors have a track record in arms deals. Czech news outlet Lidovky reported that Hynek Kmonicek (current ambassador to the U.S.), during his tenure as Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs, played a “key role” in the export of arms to Congo despite an EU embargo. The article makes the case that while his subordinates opposed the export that contravened EU rules, Kmonicek facilitated and provided cover for the weapons to be re-exported via Zimbabwe ultimately to Congo. According to Lidovky, a re-export scheme was used to circumvent arms embargoes, facilitating arms proliferation into a war-torn Central African region that harbors terrorists.
Despite this reporting, Kmonicek denies any involvement in the arms trade. I asked him in an email whether he has provided advice on arms sales, or assisted any arms trader with end-user certificates or re-exports involving several countries, including specifically Djibouti, Sudan, Azerbaijan, Indonesia, Turkey, Belarus, Iraq, and Kazakhstan; or whether he was involved in any negotiations to supply arms to the African Standby Force. His response was, “No. Furthermore, the last position where I was one of the many parts of licensing arm sales procedure in the Czech Republic I had held 17 years ago.”
Unspoken is the fact that his tenure in that position though years ago, was a strategic time when Russia was cultivating political assets and recruiting agents inside the government turning Prague into a sort of Russian spy camp. Further, Kmonicek’s response to my question about whether he supports Zeman’s demand that the foreign service change its policy on arms exports was to obfuscate, diverting to a discussion of “material for double use” in nuclear power. He completely avoided answering the question, which is a form of disinformation. When asked about an alleged secret pact to become Foreign Minister he stated: “Difference between journalists and diplomats is that diplomats do not operate with rumors.” However, they may operate with lies and can one trust the crew that jokes about liquidating journalists.
This leads to more uncomfortable questions: when Zeman was encouraging lax issuance of end user licenses was he doing so at the behest of Putin? If so, could there be a Czech arms exporter working in the interest of Russians? If not why would the president of a small NATO country call for a loosening of the laws preventing re-export of arms to embargoed countries? Whose interests does this serve? This answer, like so many, can easily be found in Zeman and Kmonicek’s social network. In short, they have many shadowy ties to Putin. Internationally recognized think tank scholar Jakub Janda was among the first to warn that Kmonicek’s appointment was against Czech national security interests. U.S. commentators warned that Kmonicek’s appointment is in line with Russian interests.
Now It seems Putin may want to turn the Czech Republic into an amazon.com for black arms to pass through as he cultivates his asymmetric approach towards NATO and the West. Not only are they dealing in black arms but building up dark financial networks that thrive on blind eyes being turned, corrupting the liberal system of European order. Russia literally wants to rot the institutions that uphold the foundation of freedom across the West.
To counter, we must not only follow the money through the Czech Republic and sanction it at every turn; our intelligence agencies should form a joint task force similar to the Bin Laden unit that tracks and systematically dismantles Putin’s dark network. We should commission this task force to examine the politico cum financial links between Russia and European capitals with ground zero being the exploitation of Prague. Putin is trying to take the west from this ground zero to ‘near zero’ where it is all against all, these are the contests strong men prefer because they usually win and there are no rules.
Finally, Russia is pursuing a multilateral approach beyond the weaponization of narratives into the realm of black arms pass-through, cultivating puppets like Zeman, mastering areas of NATO interests (realigning the Middle East via Syria, Iran) and challenging every convention in Ukraine. For these reasons, the U.S. must assist and counter these active measures into NATO. Without a united effort from both sides of the Atlantic something far worse than a Cuban missile crisis may occur as chess pieces are being put into place. Let us hope the penetration of the Prague castle does not indicate the same for greater Europe nor nationalist currents in America.
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.