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Foot Soldiers in a Shadowy Battle Between Russia and the West

He decided the cash “was for a good cause” — halting the spread of NATO and capitalist Western ways into the formerly communist lands of Eastern Europe — so he accepted.

The strange relationship that followed, consisting of passionate social media exchanges about politics and a total of €1,500 in cash transfers, was one of many forged across Eastern and Central Europe in summer 2014. They were part of a frenetic, though often clumsy, influence campaign financed from Moscow and directed by Alexander Usovsky, a Belarus-born writer, Russian-nationalist agitator and ideological hired gun in a shadowy battle for hearts and minds between Russia and the West.

Compared with Russia’s supposed meddling in the recent presidential elections in France and the United States, the activities of Mr. Kasuka and those like him are of little consequence. He belongs firmly to the fringe of Czech politics, and has never aspired to any higher office than local councilor in Melnik, the town north of Prague where he lives with his girlfriend in a graffiti-smeared housing block.

Mr. Kasuka’s collaboration with Mr. Usovsky first came to light in a cache of emails, Facebook messages and other data pilfered by Ukrainian hackers from Mr. Usovsky’s computer. It provides a rare ground-level view of a particularly murky aspect of Russia’s influence strategy: freelance activists who promote its agenda abroad, but get their backing from Russian tycoons and others close to the Kremlin, not the Russian state itself.

Mr. Usovsky’s focus was on marginal political players in the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia, and his efforts mostly fell flat. The protests organized by Mr. Kasuka and others attracted only handfuls of people. Pro-Russian websites that Mr. Usovsky helped to set up all fizzled. A Polish politician he was in touch with, Mateusz Piskorski, was arrested last year on suspicion of spying for Russia.

None of that seemed to deter Mr. Usovsky, who was still pitching wild plans and detailed budgets to potential backers in Moscow early this year.

His communications offer a revealing glimpse into Russian thinking, ambitions and frustrations. His dealings with the office of Konstantin Malofeev, a nationalist billionaire who was hit with sanctions by the United States over his alleged support for pro-Russian rebels in eastern Ukraine, are especially notable.

After Mr. Usovsky managed to orchestrate only a few tiny demonstrations in Prague, Warsaw and other cities, an assistant to Mr. Malofeev demanded in October 2014 that Mr. Usovsky produce “a clear, concrete and realistic plan for the coming to power of pro-Russian forces.”

Mr. Malofeev declined to be interviewed, and his spokeswoman, Nadezhda Novoselova, said the billionaire and his staff had nothing to do with Mr. Usovsky.

Mr. Malofeev has acquired a reputation as the Kremlin’s version of George Soros, the Hungarian-American billionaire whom pro-Western forces across Eastern Europe often turn to for money. Unlike Mr. Soros, though, the wealthy Russians who support activists abroad generally try to keep their roles and spending secret. That allows the Kremlin to keep its distance as well.

Mr. Malofeev has in the past insisted he supported only humanitarian work, not political trouble-making.

Reports that Russia used cyberattacks and disinformation to meddle in the American election have persuaded many that Moscow runs a sophisticated influence machine. But interviews with several of Mr. Usovsky’s collaborators, and the contents of his hacked computer, suggest that it was at times a more shambolic affair, hampered by money squabbles, intramural rivalries and absurdly distorted views of how politics works outside Russia.

Jakub Janda, deputy director of European Values, a Western-financed research group in Prague that has tracked Russian influence campaigns, said that Mr. Usovsky seemed so far out of touch with reality that he might even be “a decoy” meant to make people say, “Look, this whole Russia threat thing is just not serious.”

Others, though, see Mr. Usovsky as evidence of Russia’s mastery of plausible deniability and its willingness to bet on opportunists, no matter how slim their chances of success.

Mr. Usovsky “is a good case study in Russian methods,” said Daniel Milo, a former official of the Slovakian Interior Ministry who is now an expert on extremism at Globsec, a research group in Bratislava, the Slovak capital. “He is a small cog in a big industry,” Mr. Milo said. “There may be dozens more.”

Mr. Usovsky declined to be interviewed for this article without being paid. But in response to emailed questions, he confirmed that his computer had been hacked, and he did not dispute the authenticity of the leaked messages.

A resident of Vitebsk, near the Russian border with Belarus, Mr. Usovsky started his operation in 2014, riding a wave of nationalist fervor in Moscow after the annexation of Crimea and the widespread belief among Russia’s political and business elite that united European backing for sanctions against Russia could be quickly dissolved.

He set up a network of websites in various languages to promote Slavic unity, rented an office in Bratislava and established a sham foundation nominally dedicated to promoting culture.

Asked by email how much money he had received from sponsors in Moscow, Mr. Usovsky initially denied receiving any. Then, when he was sent a copy of a message he had written in October 2014 detailing €100,000 he received to finance the “preparatory stage” of his work in Eastern Europe, he stopped responding to inquiries.

Other messages taken from his computer by hackers suggest that the money came from Mr. Malofeev. Mr. Usovsky’s assistant badgered Mr. Malofeev’s assistant for hundreds of thousands more euros in late 2014 and 2015, to finance pro-Russian candidates in Polish elections.

Though he never even came close to bringing any pro-Russian groups to power, Mr. Usovsky was able to identify partners in Eastern and Central Europe ready to accept his help. He also showed a grasp of the internet’s power to amplify fringe voices and make thinly attended demonstrations seem like major dramas. He worked closely with state-controlled Russian news outlets to ensure that the activities of his Czech, Slovak and Polish collaborators received extensive coverage.

For example, Mr. Kasuka, the Czech Stalinist, has appeared regularly in Russian media as a commentator on Czech affairs and geopolitics. He once told RT that the United States might drop an atomic bomb on Ukraine and blame Russia to create a pretext for war. And a small rally that Mr. Kasuka organized in Prague was featured on Perviy Kanal, a major Russian TV channel.

“It is totally crazy,” said Roman Mica, an analyst based in Prague. “Pervy Kanal presents as serious news a protest by 10 or so people who are mostly ready for the psychological hospital.” He said Mr. Kasuka had become “one of the best known Czechs in Russia, after our hockey players.”

One person Mr. Usovsky did not want in the limelight, however, was himself. When a Slovak group, Peaceful Warrior, wanted to thank him publicly at a rally for his financial support, he swiftly vetoed the idea.

After Mr. Malofeev, his main backer, cooled on his ambitious but unrealistic political plans, Mr. Usovsky grew increasingly desperate for money. He told Mr. Malofeev’s assistant in March 2015 that his “Polish friends” needed €292,700 ($ 327,000) to win seats in Parliament. He also asked for €10,000 ($ 11,175) for Jobbik, a far-right Hungarian party, and €3,000 more for a neo-fascist paramilitary group called the Hungarian Guard.

Apparently rebuffed by Mr. Malofeev, he peppered other prospective Russian donors with detailed plans for a “pro-Russian fifth column,” claiming that he could destroy “Europe’s anti-Russian front” by channeling money to politicians who opposed NATO and the European Union. Among them were the Russian Institute for Strategic Studies, headed by a former intelligence officer, and Konstantin Zatulin, a hard-line member of the Russian Parliament.

Short of funds, Mr. Usovsky looked to Mr. Kasuka, the Czech Stalinist, as a low-cost project that could keep him in the game. Unlike Mr. Usovsky’s Polish partners, Mr. Kasuka was not constantly asking for money, and had even turned some down when he ran for a seat on the Melnik town council in 2014.

But Mr. Kasuka lost interest in street politics. Though he is still in touch with Mr. Usovsky on social media, he says he now concentrates on his writings about the risk of war, Stalin’s achievements and the misery caused by capitalist exploitation.

“It does not matter to me whether money comes from the Kremlin or from America, so long as it helps the cause,” he said. “What matters is the idea.”

Source: NYT > World

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