A close ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin is likely to be elected the new head of Interpol this week at the organization’s general assembly in Dubai. Maj. Gen. Alexander Prokopchuk has already coordinated the abuse of Interpol extradition requests, known as “red notices,” to pursue Mr. Putin’s enemies, including prominent American businessmen and environmental activists.
China’s arrest and detention of Meng Hongwei, the previous president who disappeared mysteriously earlier this month, has provided an opening for Mr. Putin to pursue his meddlesome agenda. But if the Kremlin tramples on the agency’s neutrality, how will the West respond? How will the civilized nations of the world—the ones that recognize and respect the rule of law—protect their citizens from the wrath of Mr. Putin’s new global police force when it is headed by a loyal general?
Gen. Prokopchuk’s allegiances are clear. He was appointed to Russia’s Interior Ministry in 2003, not too long after Mr. Putin ascended to the presidency. He became a key surrogate in the Putinization of the Russian state. Since 2011, when he was appointed head of Russia’s Interpol Bureau, he has been indispensable in Mr. Putin’s manipulation and abuse of what is supposed to be a neutral, apolitical international organization.
Part of the problem lies in how Interpol’s red-notice system works. The process for applying for one of these international arrest warrants is notoriously fickle, requiring a member state simply to submit a form. There is almost no oversight. Interpol rarely investigates the validity of these warrants. The organization acknowledges that approximately 97% of notice requests are not reviewed in depth.
In 2008 an American citizen residing in Copenhagen was detained as a result of an Interpol red notice and held for almost two months in a maximum-security prison. Ilya Katsnelson was never charged, as investigators determined that it was his involvement with a Putin nemesis—Russian dissident Mikhail Khordorkhovsky—that provoked the warrant. U.S. investor and Putin critic Bill Browder experienced something similar in Madrid, where he was arrested in his hotel room by Spanish police who declared the cause of arrest to be “Interpol—Russia.”
Mr. Putin’s weaponization of Interpol is most apparent in the European Union’s frontier Baltic and Balkan states. Interpol issued a red notice for Estonian politician and intelligence chief Eerik-Niles Kross on the eve of the 2013 elections in the tiny Baltic country of 1.3 million. Mr. Kross’s IRL party was poised to make sizable gains against Estonia’s Russia-aligned party.
Most worryingly, Russia is using Interpol as the sharp end of a stick to expand its influence in the Balkans. Mr. Putin is keen to secure Russian control of EU energy supplies through Kremlin proxies Rosneft and Gazprom. Under Gen. Prokopchuk’s watchful eye, Interpol has used red notices to shift geopolitical currents and attack Europe’s energy security.
Since 2009, when Hungarian energy company MOL beat Russian competitors to an investment in INA, Croatia’s largest energy company, Russia has supported Croatia’s attempts to renege on that agreement. A powerful Russian energy presence in central Europe would have huge ramifications for the region and the EU. Perhaps not coincidentally, the MOL chairman Zsolt Hernádi had an Interpol red notice issued against him on bribery charges this week, despite already being exonerated of those very same charges by the United Nations’ most senior trade-arbitration court in 2017.
All of this comes at a critical time for the region. Gazprom chairman Alexei Miller visited Croatia in 2014 to try to scare off potential competition in what Russia considers to be its Central European backyard. From energy deals to electoral campaigns, the abuse of Interpol’s red-notice system has real geopolitical consequences. And if Mr. Putin can capture and control benign international institutions to execute silent economic coups in an attempt to destabilize Europe, perhaps it is time for the West to rethink its engagement with these organizations. Allowing Mr. Putin’s aggression to go unchecked could lead to permanent strategic losses for the liberal order.
Of Interpol’s 192 members, 14 democracies account for 74% of the body’s funding. Unless they use that financial leverage to change the body’s archaic processes at this year’s summit in Dubai, a much bigger price will be paid by Europe and the Western world.
The article originally appeared in The Wall Street Journal on November 20, 2018.