Kremlin-connected group bribed European politicians to endorse annexation of Crimea

For years, a secret organization operating from Russia’s parliament successfully influenced European views regarding occupied Ukraine. 

The OCCRP investigation determined that the hacked Russian official emails provide a new perspective of the operation and demonstrate how European Union politicians who helped push Moscow’s agenda were paid cash and benefits.

Russian meddling in European politics via corruption

Leaked emails reveal how a Russian Duma official established a network of politicians, political scientists, journalists, and others who assisted him in advancing the Kremlin’s interests in Europe.

His organization funded far-right activists to write pro-Kremlin articles in European media outlets and bribed European politicians to introduce pro-Russian motions in their local legislatures.

The network organized trips to the annexed Crimea for European politicians and business figures, with Russian state-funded groups covering travel and lodging and remunerations presumably paid to some individuals.

With a budget of 68,000 euros, it also assisted in bringing European political figures to Russia to serve as election observers.

Data from Russian parliamentary staffer Mirzakhanian’s hacked email

The hacked Mirzakhanian emails were obtained by Ukrainian hackers in 2020 and have previously been reported on. Still, the scope of Mirzakhanian’s organized operation to influence European politicians and advance Moscow’s goals across the EU has never been revealed.

Hacked mails, Source: OCCRP

Since Russia’s savage invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, international condemnation of Vladimir Putin’s awful aggression has reached a boiling point. Nonetheless, even after launching an all-out war, Russia may count on the rare friendly voices in Europe. 

Since 2014, the group has been planning to funnel money to European politicians to legitimize Russia’s seizure of Crimea and push pro-Moscow policies within EU members.

Details of the group’s actions have been revealed thanks to hacked and released emails belonging to its organizer, Russian parliamentary staffer Sargis Mirzakhanian, who operated the “International Agency for Current Policy” in the years that followed Crimea’s annexation.

Russian group paid politicians thousands of euros – leaked data

According to the emails, his group bribed European lawmakers thousands of euros to introduce pro-Russian motions in European legislatures, according to a new investigation conducted by Eesti Ekspress in collaboration with OCCRP, IrpiMedia, iStories, and Profil.

It also arranged for political personalities from Germany, Austria, Italy, the Czech Republic, and Poland to be flown on lavish foreign trips to pro-Russian rallies in seized Crimea and paid a bonus for their attendance.

In addition, the lobbying firm brought numerous European politicians to Russia to participate as official election monitors. As we know, many European fake observers went to phony referendums in the Ukrainian territories annexed by Russia. 

Ties between Mirzakhanian’s group and officials in Italy and Cyprus

The emails, which a group of Ukrainian hacktivists leaked, show that Mirzakhanian’s operation had close links with officials in Italy and Cyprus. These relations prepared the door for pro-Russian votes to be carried in both nations, with the Cypriot parliament and various Italian regional councils urging for the lifting of sanctions imposed on Russia for its annexation of Crimea.

Previous media reports have revealed connections between EU lawmakers and Kremlin propagandists, but this is the first complete look at how the operation was conducted from Russia. 

The emails show that Mirzakhanian, an adviser in Russia’s parliament, the Duma, established a network of political analysts, reporters, activists, and scholars who assisted him in advancing the Kremlin’s interests overseas.

The leaked emails revealed Mirzakhanian’s role in coordinating protests, putting media articles, and planning parliamentary resolutions across Europe, while arranging “phony” election observation missions to legitimize Crimea’s annexation and “advance Russian domestic and foreign policy interests,” according to Anton Shekhovtsov, chair of the pro-democracy non-profit Centre for Democratic Integrity.

Russia’s success in softening the EU reaction to the Crimea annexation

Russia was wildly successful in softening the reaction to its different campaigns by hiring former and present lawmakers. It also contributed to Russia’s ongoing full-scale assault on Ukraine.

The International Agency for Current Policy is described as a “closed association of specialists” that wanted to “collaborate with prominent EU parliamentary parties and individual politicians” in one PowerPoint presentation seen in the hacked emails. 

The group looked to have a direct relationship with the Kremlin: Mirzakhanyan exchanged over 1,000 emails with Inal Ardzinba, a department director in the Russian president’s administration who worked for Vladislav Surkov, a senior adviser to Putin at the time, between 2014 and 2017.

Their actions ranged from organizing anti-NATO street protests to lobbying European legislators. The emails demonstrate how Mirzakhanian’s firm planned to make large payments to EU legislators for them to support favorable resolutions in their nations.

Failed pro-Russia resolutions

The organization intended for Italian Senator Paolo Tosato and Austrian Member of Parliament Johannes Hübner, both of far-right parties, to introduce resolutions in their respective legislatures calling for lifting sanctions against Russia. 

The project plans don’t go into specifics, but a “budget” of 20,000 euros was stated for both the Italian and Austrian motions, with an additional 15,000 euros for each “in scenario of successful voting.” 

It’s unclear whether these amounts were meant to be given directly to the two politicians or if they were budgets for the overall project.

Finally, Hübner and Tosato introduced resolutions against Russian sanctions in their respective legislative chambers, but they were not adopted (resolution in Italy, resolution in Austria).

Success stories of Russian influence in the EU

A municipal council in Veneto, Italy, was preparing a vote acknowledging the results of manipulated Russian referendums in Crimea and advocating for lifting EU sanctions against Russia.

The proposal was written with the assistance of Mirzakhanian’s group, and their inside man was local councilor Valdegamberi, who was then affiliated with the far-right Lega Nord party.

A majority vote passed the resolution in the council on May 18, 2016. Even though a regional assembly has no substantial influence over state policy, Russian propaganda media sites enthusiastically reported on the first EU area to legitimize Crimea’s annexation.

In late April 2016, Mirzakhanian’s aide Areg Agasaryan emailed him another project concept, asking that Andros Kyprianou, the veteran general secretary of Cyprus’s Progressive Party of Working People, file a motion to the Cypriot parliament.

Agasaryan had formed ties in Cyprus through Dmitry Kozlov, a Cypriot-Russian businessman who connected the organization with pro-Russian politicians there.

The motion tabled by Kyprianou’s party in July 2016 mirrored those drafted by Agasaryan but added two requests: removing sanctions against individual Russians and fulfilling the conditions of the February 2015 Minsk agreements between pro-Russian militants and Ukraine.

The proposal was approved, placing the Cypriot parliament at odds with the EU’s stance on sanctions on Russia for the takeover of Crimea.

Kyprianou was invited to a meeting in Moscow in October 2016 with Kozlov and two key players advocating investment in Crimea, Andrey Nazarov, and Rustam Muratov.

Planned bonuses as per leaked documents

Several instances of cooperation between European politicians and the Kremlin may be traced back to the Yalta International Economic Forums, which were arranged with the assistance of Mirzakhanyan and his colleagues.

  • Marcus Pretzell, then AfD’s member of the European Parliament – 5000$
  • Jaromir Kolicer, a far-left MEP from the Czech Republic (died in 2020) – 5000$
  • Axel Kasseger, member of the National Council for Freedom Party, Austria – 4000$
  • Barbara Rozenkranz, member of the National Council for Freedom Party, Austria – 4000$
  • Stefano Valdegamberi, member of the regional council of Venetto – 3000$

Marcus Pretzell, a former member of the European Parliament from Germany whose name was mentioned in the document, denied receiving payment for his attendance at the Yalta conference.

Current Austrian parliamentarian Axel Kassegger and former politician Barbara Rosenkranz, both members of the right-wing Freedom Party of Austria, are also identified in the paper. They also informed OCCRP that they had yet to receive any money.

Among the emails between Mirzakhanyan and Russian lawmakers are those from Leonid Slutsky, a longstanding member of Russia’s Duma who heads the committee on International Affairs. 

A communication from 2017 indicates how Mirzakhanian’s and Slutsky’s teams collaborated to bring influential Europeans to Russia to monitor local elections, paying their travel and lodging costs.

According to the disclosed emails, the requests were coordinated through Slutsky’s NGO, Russian Peace Foundation, and the 2017 election monitoring operation had a budget of at least 68,000 euros.

As the investigation proves, Russia bribes politicians, primarily from far-right and far-left parties, to push its agenda and influence public opinions in the EU. The final target is to soften European response, which now consists in supporting Ukraine, to Moscow’s war and territories annexation. 

So, all pro-Kremlin views in Europe must be questioned and not trusted, as they are often backed with Moscow’s bloody money.

The full report is available at the OCCRP website.

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