Who Will Be The First Russo-Republican Big Shot Arrested As A Spy?
Two years before he was convicted of treason— although the authorities called it ”lying” instead— retired General Michael Flynn was paid $45,000 to go to Russia and say nice things about Putin and criticize President Obama. He neglected to report that income, a crime. (He also neglected to say he had been paid over half a million for secretly— and illegally— lobbying for Turkey’s fascist government.) He was already an “informal” Trump advisor at the time. Right after he was elected, Obama warned Trump that Flynn was a Russian asset. Trump, of course, ignored him and appointed Flynn national security advisor, very gravely endangering U.S. security. Flynn had been passing classified information onto the head of Russia’s North American spy operation, Ambassador Sergey Kislyak. Flynn then lied to the FBI about it. On February 13 the Trump administration fired Flynn after he admitted he had lied to Pence about his treasonous dealings with Kislyak. Trump pressured FBI Director James Comey to let Flynn off and not charge him with treason. Comey refused and Trump fired him 3 months later. On December 1, Flynn please guilty. Trump had the Justice Department drop all charges the following May.
This brings us to a related question: who are the Russo-Republicans in Congress? At the very minimum we’re looking at outspoken pro-Putin members Marjorie Traitor Greene (R-GA), Matt Gaetz (R-FL), Scott Perry (R-PA), Paul Gosar (R-AZ), Matt Rosendale (R-MT) and Mary Miller (R-IL). In April, 2022 there were 10 votes against the Ukraine Democracy Defense Lend-Lease Act, which passed with 417 votes. The 10 no votes are all extremist far right Republicans with a taste for fascism and an appreciation of Putin:
Andy Biggs (R-AZ)
Dan Bishop (R-NC)
Warren Davidson (R-OH)
Matt Gaetz (R-FL)
Paul Gosar (R-AZ)
Marjorie Traitor Greene (R-GA)
Thomas Massie (R-KY)
Ralph Norman (R-SC)
Scott Perry (R-PA)
Tom Tiffany (R-WI)
Two weeks later, Congress passed a supplemental appropriations bill for Ukraine 368-57. Here you get a broader view of who’s shaky on their loyalty to America, all extremists, most from the “Freedom Caucus”...
A year ago this month, Tim Dickinson wrote that “as Vladimir Putin ramps up his military offensive against Ukraine, not everyone is upset that the Russian bear is mauling its European neighbor. Across the American right, prominent figures from Tucker Carlson and Alex Jones to senate candidate J.D. Vance and CPAC star Tulsi Gabbard, have been cheering Putin on, broadcasting their disdain for Ukraine— or both.
A couple of months ago, Peter Stone, reporting for The Guardian, wrote that “Ever since Russia launched its brutal war in Ukraine the Kremlin has banked on American conservative political and media allies to weaken US support for Ukraine and deployed disinformation operations to falsify the horrors of the war for both US and Russian audiences, say disinformation experts. Some of the Kremlin’s most blatant falsehoods about the war aimed at undercutting US aid for Ukraine have been promoted by major figures on the American right, from Holocaust denier and white supremacist Nick Fuentes to ex-Trump adviser Steve Bannon and Fox News star Tucker Carlson, whose audience of millions is deemed especially helpful to Russian objectives. On a more political track, House Republican Freedom Caucus members such as Paul Gosar, Marjorie Taylor Greene and Scott Perry– who in May voted with 54 other Republican members against a $40 billion aid package for Ukraine, and have raised other concerns about the war– have proved useful, though perhaps unwitting, Kremlin allies at times. Pro-Moscow video materials from the network RT, which early this year shuttered its US operations, have been featured on Rumble, a video sharing platform popular with conservatives that last year received major financing from a venture capital firm co-founded by recently elected Republican Ohio senator JD Vance and backed by billionaire Peter Thiel.
There are signs that the conservative wing of the Republican party and its media allies are already ratcheting up their criticism of US backing for Ukraine. For instance, Perry, the chair of the rightwing Freedom Caucus, in October floated the idea of Republicans using their anticipated control of the House to investigate the Biden administration’s efforts and policies involving Ukraine-Russia peace talks.
Moscow’s political friends on the far right have also become more vocal in pushing falsehoods and have hosted some Freedom Caucus members to showcase their influence.
Fuentes infamously dined with Trump at Mar-a-Lago last month despite his long record of cozying up to Russian president Vladimir Putin and his antisemitic and white supremacist remarks. Back in March, Fuentes said on his podcast: “We continue to support czar Putin in the war effort.” Fuentes also falsely claimed the Russian war in Ukraine was “not aggression” and its goals were “not unreasonable,” repeating the Kremlin line that Moscow is trying to denazify Ukraine.
…John Sipher, who served in the CIA’s national clandestine services for 28 years with a stint leading its Russia operations, said that Putin is using a playbook that he honed during his long career with the KGB to influence policy and Russian opinion.
“I think Putin’s weakness is that he is not a strategic thinker but reverts to what he knows – using covert means to influence and undermine others,” Sipher said. “He cannot win on the battlefield so he uses threats and intimidations to influence and scare western leaders into backing down or pushing Ukraine to the negotiating table.”
Sipher noted that historically Putin “has weaponized energy, information, refugees, food and nuclear threats to get his way. I think his nuclear threats are just a means to sow unease and dissension among supporters of Ukraine, and suspect that the discussion of a ‘dirty bomb’ is meant to signal to his domestic audience that Ukraine is a real threat, and the population should support Putin’s tough measures.”
In the US the audiences receiving pro-Putin messages have been boosted by Rumble, the video sharing platform, which has featured RT content including an interview with two Americans captured in Ukraine who were badly beaten by Russians and later released, as the New York Times last month reported.
One of the two American men in the video clip told his interviewer while he was in custody that he had been deceived to fight in Ukraine by “propaganda from the west” that reported that Russians soldiers were “indiscriminately killing civilians”.
Megan Squire, a deputy director for data analytics with the Southern Poverty Law Center, noted that Rumble has also been busy recycling pro-Putin and anti-Ukraine material from multiple figures on the right.
“Alt-tech platforms such as Rumble are actively peddling the anti-Ukraine talking points of their heavy users, many of whom have been deplatformed elsewhere,” Squire said. “A simple search for ‘Ukraine’ in Rumble today shows that the top search results are for a Steve Bannon video where he promotes Marjorie Taylor Greene’s demands for an audit of Ukrainian relief funds, and junk news site Post Millennial, which is using Rumble to promote clips from a similar story from Tucker Carlson.”
But for overall influence with American audiences, veteran Russia experts say Carlson’s big Fox megaphone still dwarfs other propaganda tools favorable to Moscow.
“The audience for Fox News commentators like Tucker Carlson, who frequently spreads pro-Russian narratives, is obviously orders of magnitude bigger than that of new niche players like Rumble that often carry Russian disinformation,” said Andrew Weiss, a vice-president for studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “Such platforms are far more impactful than the more sneaky techniques that the Russian propaganda apparatus employs these days.”
A few days ago European journalists Martin Laine, Cecilia Anesi, Lorenzo Bagnoli and Tatiana Tkachenko published a heavily researched piece about Russian attempts to buy influence in Europe in relation to the invasion of Ukraine and the annexation of parts of the country. “Russia,” they wrote “can still rely on the occasional friendly voice in Europe: Last November, for example, far-right Italian local legislator Stefano Valdegamberi penned an op-ed decrying the EU’s decision to designate Russia a terrorist state as ‘a serious mistake’ that ‘foments conflict by denying historical truth.’ But what Valdegamberi didn’t mention was that he had long been collaborating with a secretive Russian lobbying group with a direct link to the Kremlin. Since at least 2014, that group had designed plans to channel cash to European politicians to help it legitimize Russia’s occupation of Crimea and promote pro-Moscow policies inside EU countries. Details of the group’s activities have come to light via hacked and leaked emails belonging to its coordinator, Russian parliamentary staffer Sargis Mirzakhanian, who ran the International Agency for Current Policy in the years following the annexation of Crimea. The emails suggest his group paid politicians thousands of euros to put forward pro-Russian resolutions in European legislatures… It also helped arrange for political figures from countries including Germany, Austria, Italy, the Czech Republic and Poland to be flown on expensive junkets to pro-Russia events in occupied Crimea, and paid honoraria for their presence.”
Mirzakhanian, there wrote, was “coordinating protests, placing media articles, and preparing parliamentary resolutions across Europe, while organizing ‘fake’ election observation missions as he and his associates sought to legitimize the annexation of Crimea and ‘advance Russian domestic and foreign policy interests.’” Target politicians were from Austria, Germany, Italy, Bulgaria, Greece, Cyprus, Latvia, Romania and Turkey.
The group planned for Italian Senator Paolo Tosato and Austrian Member of Parliament Johannes Hübner, both from far-right parties, to put forward resolutions in their respective legislatures to lift sanctions against Russia. The project outlines don’t go into detail about how this would happen, but a “budget” of 20,000 euros was listed for both the Italian and Austrian resolutions, with a further 15,000 euros for each “in case of successful voting.” It’s unclear whether these sums were intended to be paid directly to the two politicians or were budgets for the entire projects.
In the end, Hübner and Tosato both presented resolutions against Russian sanctions on their respective parliament floors, but legislators did not adopt them…
In both regional councils in Italy and the national parliament of Cyprus, motions drafted with the help of Mirzakhanian’s Kremlin-linked apparatus were actually passed.
…“It is important for Russia to have Western politicians visit…Crimea, in order to normalize and whitewash their illegal invasion and occupation,” Lautman said. “Domestically, [Russia] uses these visits for propaganda to show that Europe not only accepts the annexation of Crimea but there is nothing illegal [about] this aggression.”
“Russia wins in its PR operations every single time a politician or any influential figure visits Moscow or Crimea,” Lautman added.
From the outset, Ukraine protested the attendance of European politicians at the Yalta forums, but more and more of them continued to visit in 2017, 2018, and 2019 (the subsequent events were canceled due to the pandemic).
Among the correspondence between Mirzakhanyan and Russian politicians are emails from Leonid Slutsky, a longtime member of Russia’s Duma aligned with the Kremlin, who chairs the committee on International Affairs. An exchange from 2017 reveals how Mirzakhanian’s and Slutsky’s teams worked together to bring prominent Europeans to observe local elections in Russia, covering their travel and accommodation costs.
The invitations were arranged through an NGO that Slutsky led, Russian Peace Foundation, and the 2017 election observation project had a budget of at least 68,000 euros, according to the leaked emails. Three members of the European Parliament and several local parliamentarians from countries like Belgium and Sweden were flown in for the occasion.
“Fake election observation is often an entry door to other pro-Kremlin activities which then might end up also in financial relationships or corruption,” said Stefanie Schiffer, chair of the board of European Platform for Democratic Elections, an organization that tracks election observation missions in Russia and elsewhere.
The code of conduct for international election observers says they should not “accept funding or infrastructural support from the government whose elections are being observed, as it may raise a significant conflict of interest and undermine confidence in the integrity of the mission’s findings.”
Schiffer said the 2017 mission “contradicted this requirement.”
Other politicians with ties to Mirzakhanian’s International Agency for Current Policy observed more recent Russian elections. For example, the Italian councilor Valdegamberi attended the Russian presidential election in annexed Crimea in 2018 and was also an election observer at the 2021 Russian parliamentary elections.
“I was struck by the transparency of everything,” he told Russian media during the 2021 vote.
Earlier emails show how Valdegamberia had seemingly sought to monetize his Kremlin connections. After the 2016 Yalta forum, he flew to Crimea seeking business relationships and brought other Italian politicians with him: Three from the Veneto region, plus one each from Tuscany, Lombardy, Emilia Romagna and Liguria. A delegation of Italian investors joined the trip.
“For Stefano [Valdegamberi] the result of the trip was not purely PR, but the organization of promising contacts for business ventures, which pay for his election campaigns and support his political viability,” wrote one of Mirzakhanian’s European associates in an email to him in October 2016, just after the delegation’s visit to Crimea.
The strategy bore some fruit: The Chairman of the State Council of the so-called “Republic of Crimea” signed a cooperation agreement with the president of the Veneto regional council promising to build economic ties, and Russian state media announced various business deals established between Italian industrialists and Crimea.
…The leaked emails show how four specific political figures in Europe worked especially closely with Mirzakhanyan and his group: Robert Stelzl, a pro-Russia political activist from Austria; Manuel Ochsenreiter of Germany’s populist right-wing AfD party; Mateusz Piskorski, a Polish political activist arrested in 2016 for spying for Russia; and Piskorski’s wife, Marina Klebanovich, who helped coordinate the Agency’s activities in Europe.
…In Germany, Ochsenreiter demanded thousands of euros to publish pro-Russia articles orchestrated by Mirzakhanian’s associates in the magazine he edited, ZUERST!. Emails show this propaganda campaign had a budget of 12,000 euros, and included plans for an interview with AfD’s Marcus Pretzell on the problems with Russian sanctions, which was published in July 2016.
As with FPÖ in Austria, AfD was a key ally for the International Agency for Current Policy. Mirzakhanian’s emails include a plan to fund the 2017 political campaign of AfD’s Markus Frohnmaier, and show how in March 2016 the network worked on a draft of AfD’s anti-sanctions resolution, which was submitted at the legislative assembly of Baden-Wüttenberg two months later.
Ocshenreiter was later investigated for drumming up hatred between Ukraine and Hungary via false-flag arson attacks against a Hungarian center in Ukraine, but fled to Moscow and died there suddenly in 2021.
Piskorski was apprehended in Poland in May 2016, two months before a NATO summit in Warsaw. Emails show Mirzakhanian had planned a massive pro-Russian influence-peddling operation for the event with the help of Piskorski’s party, Smena. Piskorski was charged with carrying out espionage for Russian and Chinese intelligence, and though he was released on bail in 2019 he remains under police supervision. (Piskorski and Klebanovich did not respond to requests to comment).
Documents setting out Piskorski and Mirzakhanian’s plan, which aimed to promote anti-NATO stances in various countries during the Warsaw summit, included the names of a journalist and four political figures they were working with. In 2021 two of them— Lithuanian Algirdas Paleckis and Hungarian Béla Kovács— were found guilty of spying for Russia.
While Mirzakhanian has disappeared from the public eye, his group’s allies in Europe continue to make pro-Moscow statements and agitate for Russian interests: AfD’s Frohnmaier has criticized Germany for helping Ukraine; FPÖ’s Axel Kassegger demanded in September last year that Austria review its stance on Russian sanctions; and Robert Stelzl was photographed at a pro-Russian rally in Vienna in November wearing a t-shirt sporting the infamous Russian “Z” symbol and the text “Russian Army.”
Asked by reporters about the photo, Stelzl was unapologetic: “I bought this from Serbia. It is of good quality, breathable and the message is right.”