Then a guardian angel materialized from Moscow.
Lukoil, the largest private Russian oil company in an industry dependent on Kremlin approval, stepped in to pay the nearly $1.4 million fine owed to a Czech court.
The aide, Martin Nejedly, stayed on as economic adviser to the Czech president, Milos Zeman, and vice chairman of his party. Perhaps more important, he retained his office right next to the president’s in the Castle, the official palace that looms over the capital, Prague.
But the payment last spring raised questions about Russian influence-buying in the Castle, where Mr. Zeman has staked out a position as one of the Kremlin’s most ardent sympathizers among European leaders.
“Unfortunately in the Czech Republic, some advisers to the president or the prime minister are willing to cooperate with the Russians,” said Karel Randak, who retired as head of the Czech foreign intelligence service in 2007. “I am not saying that they are Russian agents — but unfortunately for some people, the money is more important than the security of the Czech Republic.”
On Thursday, the Obama administration imposed sanctions against Russia to retaliate against what American intelligence agencies say was the use of cyberattacks to meddle in the presidential election. But while the hacking focused attention on one particularly stealthy, intrusive way of influencing other states, it is just one lever that the Kremlin pulls.
The others include disinformation campaigns across a range of Russian-financed media outlets, support for violent fringe groups and even occasional plots against high-profile government critics.
And in some cases, experts say, the Kremlin and its allies resort to an old-fashioned but highly effective technique: trying to buy seats at the table of mainstream politics, never sure where or when their support might pay off.
One overarching question about Russian influence in Europe is whether President Vladimir V. Putin has just been lucky that some politicians echo his thinking, or whether the Kremlin has manipulated that trend. For many analysts, somewhere between pure luck and outright manipulation lies opportunism, and they call that a Kremlin specialty.
“The Russians systematically fill any open space, and they try to expand it,” said Martin Stropnicky, the Czech defense minister. “They have years of practice, and they are not in a hurry.”
Moscow did not construct public disenchantment with either the European Union or liberal immigration policies, for example, but it exploits such issues, analysts said. The Kremlin seeks to weaken what it considers alliances arrayed against it, like the European Union and NATO, especially as it sees them spreading through its natural sphere of influence in the former Soviet bloc.
“Every country that was successful in moving away from Communism toward an open, prosperous society based on law is a real threat to them,” said Ivan Gabal, deputy chairman of the Security Committee in the Czech Parliament.
Russia’s funding of political movements or individual politicians is nothing new, analysts say. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, all manner of payments from Moscow came to light, including subsidizing of the antinuclear movement.
“The behavior is so close to Soviet behavior it is ridiculous,” said Martin Kragh, head of the Russia and Eurasia Program at the Swedish Institute of International Affairs in Stockholm. “It is like they picked up an old handbook and just dusted it off.”
Gleb Pavlovsky, a political consultant who served as a Kremlin spin doctor for 15 years before 2011, said the main difference now was that while the Soviet Union had sought out ideological allies, the modern Kremlin looked for anyone who could serve its purposes.
“I am certain that they pay a large number of different people,” he said. “In the Kremlin they see this as the normal ways of the market. I think that they always have some money, a line item in the budget, to help in creating advantageous positions.”
A Czech Leader’s Path Back
As prime minister from 1998 to 2002, Mr. Zeman was the key official in negotiating the Czech Republic’s entrance into the European Union, lauding it as his country’s return to its Western roots. Then he lost a presidential bid in 2003, withdrawing to a remote village and passing summer days floating in a rubber dinghy on a local lake.
Most Czechs forgot about him. The Russians did not.
He was invited to an annual forum used as a platform to attack Western institutions by Vladimir I. Yakunin, head of Russian Railways and a former Soviet intelligence officer at the United Nations. At least one Russian ambassador dropped in to visit as well, according to several Czech journalists.
Mr. Zeman made a comeback in 2013, winning the presidency in a victory partly engineered by Mr. Nejedly, the key financial official for the campaign.
Mr. Nejedly remains a shadowy figure — serving the president as a private adviser, not on the government payroll.
He spent most of the 1990s working in Russia, telling one Czech reporter in a rare interview that he promoted Opel cars. He eventually returned to the Czech Republic and in 2007 founded Lukoil Aviation Czech, a Lukoil subsidiary, becoming its general manager. The company won no-bid contracts to supply aviation fuel at several Czech airports, including Prague’s.
But the business failed, running up almost $7.5 million in debts, according to commercial records kept by the Prague Municipal Court, including a $1.4 million fine Mr. Nejedly owed to the Czech state over a fuel deal gone sour. The records were first unearthed in November by the MF DNES newspaper.
Lukoil liquidated its subsidiary. Court records indicate that Mr. Nejedly, who owned 40 percent of Lukoil Aviation Czech, paid nothing.
Fostering ties with energy middlemen who owe their fortunes to Russia and exert considerable political influence is a classic Russian method seen in Germany, Ukraine and other countries. Such links might not be forged by the Kremlin directly, but by individuals or companies seeking to please Mr. Putin.
Mr. Nejedly displays his Russian sympathies plainly enough — a recent picture published in the Czech media showed him holding his cellphone with a picture of Mr. Putin on the back.
Relations between Russia and the European Union deteriorated sharply in 2014 after Russian used its military to annex Crimea and to destabilize Ukraine. In the aftermath, Mr. Zeman proved notably friendly toward Russia.
He repeatedly criticized Western economic sanctions imposed on Russia, and denied that the Kremlin had deployed troops in Ukraine. The latter prompted Carl Bildt, the Swedish foreign minister at the time, to remark in September of 2014: “I don’t know if the Czech Republic has an intelligence service. It does? Then he should ask them.”
Mr. Zeman was among just two or three European Union leaders who attended the May 2015 Victory Day parade in Moscow commemorating the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II. Mr. Putin greeted him warmly.
“It is a pleasure to know that there are politicians in Europe who are capable of directly expressing their viewpoint and of asserting and conducting an independent policy,” the Russian president said, according to the Kremlin’s website.
Mr. Nejedly, though lacking a Czech government security clearance, was one of just two aides in the meeting, a move Mr. Zeman defended because of Mr. Nejedy’s role as an economic adviser.
Since that time, Mr. Zeman has continued backing pro-Kremlin policies. He endorsed the Russian intervention in Syria, and last summer called for a “Czechxit” referendum like the British vote to withdraw from the European Union.
Debate Over Influence
There is a debate in the Czech Republic over the extent to which the Kremlin influences the president. Some accuse him of accepting Russian money for his campaigns, while others say his statements reflect the sentiments of a public increasingly fed up with the European Union. Then there are those who argue that he has long espoused a role for the Czech Republic as an East-West bridge.
Some observers also note that as president, Mr. Zeman has a loud megaphone but little real power. The prime minister and the cabinet, who set policy, have remained staunchly pro-Western.
The president’s spokesman, Jiri Ovcacek, said in a text message that he would not respond to questions about alleged Russian influence. Mr. Zeman tends to dismiss his critics, including the press, as “Prague whiners” or “Prague cafe society.”
Mr. Nejedly, reached by telephone, railed briefly about the court fine levied against Lukoil Aviation Czech, before asking to see any questions in writing. He did not answer them. The Russian Embassy also asked for questions in writing and did not respond. Lukoil’s Moscow headquarters said it had liquidated the company and paid off its debts in accordance with Czech law, noting that it had appealed the fine and lost.
Mr. Zeman previously denied that Lukoil was among his sponsors, and Vagit Alekperov, head of the company, told a Czech newspaper years ago that Lukoil was privately owned and entirely independent of Russian politics, according to translations from The Fleet Sheet, an English-language news service.
It is difficult to prove that the Kremlin buys influence. Even in the rare cases when the payments are obvious, cause and effect are not black and white. Various Czech politicians and analysts argued that President Zeman merely reflected the popular mood at home.
Zdenek Ondracek, a member of Parliament for the Communist Party, said many Czechs were nostalgic for the days before 1989, when the Soviet model offered greater stability, income equality and relative ease.
“The socialist state offered its citizens many guarantees, and no one would find themselves facing hardships on their own,” Mr. Ondracek said, wearing a black T-shirt printed with words “I was born in the CSSR,” the old initials for the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic.
In some cases, old ties may be more potent than any website pumping out false stories, said Mr. Randak, the former intelligence chief. He noted that many such personal links existed from the more than four decades that the Soviet Union controlled Czechoslovakia.
Russian businesspeople, journalists and others have longstanding social or commercial ties here, and some undoubtedly work for Russian intelligence, he said.
The Russian Embassy also tried to recruit members of the 40,000-strong exile community as agents of influence, setting up the Coordinating Council of the Russian Compatriots in the Czech Republic, according to two Russian leaders of expatriate groups, Alexej N. Kelin, the coordinating council’s former head, and Igor Zolotarev. At first the exiles thought the embassy outreach was to learn how the Czech Republic transitioned away from Communism.
“This illusion disappeared at the time when Putin came to power and the whole interest of Russia in its citizens abroad was treating them as a channel to exercise Russian foreign policy abroad,” said Mr. Zolotarev, the founder of an expatriate group called Russian Tradition.
In addition, Prague is teeming with Russian spies. The 2015 annual report by the domestic intelligence service stated that the extraordinary number of Russian diplomats accredited to the embassy here meant many were working as intelligence officers. The number of Russian Embassy diplomats is generally pegged at 120 to 140, compared with about 40 Foreign Service officers for the United States.
Puppet organizations and other Russian operations “can be used to destabilize or manipulate Czech society or the political environment at any time, if Russia wishes to do so,” the report said.
In January, the Interior Ministry will start a Center Against Terrorism and Hybrid Threats meant to expose disinformation and the like.
Analysts suspect the Kremlin is the main Russian entity that tries to buy influence, but hardly the only one. Oligarchs and companies are guilty of the same behavior.
“A lot of this is not at the direct behest of Putin,” said Alina Polyakova of the Atlantic Council, editor of a recent study on Russian influence in Europe. “There are individuals who try to seek favoritism, who want to bring something good to the czar.”