In the Middle East and well beyond, 2019 has been a year of mass public protest and street mobilization. The region is seizing with disorganized and open discontent the scope of which attests to the lasting imprint of the political revolts that erupted in 2011 and continuing socioeconomic and political problems. That impact reveals itself in the contrasting lessons that regimes and oppositions have drawn from the nine-year aftershock generated by the Arab Spring. In Egypt, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, and Saudi Arabia, the Arab Spring’s tremors have convinced many autocratic leaders that their survival requires crushing all dissent. But where varying degrees of space for political contestation and electoral politics remain (in Iraq, Lebanon, Sudan, and especially Tunisia), or where ossified regimes lack the means or habit of engaging their societies (as in Algeria), citizens have mobilized to challenge ruling elites who have lined their pockets in the name of religious or sectarian parties. Their protests do not in fact portend an equally shared quest to banish sectarian political mobilization. However, because corruption is a scourge that all groups agree must be eliminated, fighting it provides a nearly perfect battle cry for a more inclusive—if as yet undefined—democratic politics.
The struggle against corruption in the Arab world faces hurdles that may prevent today’s demonstrators from realizing the unformed and unrealized dreams of comprehensive political change. These obstacles are partly rooted in the resolve of powerful regional autocracies, such as those in Iran and Saudi Arabia, to continue backing their allies in Iraq, Lebanon, Yemen, and elsewhere. But there are also potent domestic obstacles, not least of which is the still tight fit between patronage politics and sectarianism. Beyond this, there is also a range of inconvenient if basic economic and institutional realities that probably have not occurred to many of the young men and women who have taken to the streets. In fact, the struggle against corruption will require painful choices, though recognizing these inconvenient facts does not mean abandoning the battle against corruption. That said, it does require the emergence of a new cohort of leaders who have the charisma, authority, power, and commitment to clearly define the various and potentially conflicting priorities that the region’s popular movements must confront sooner rather than later.
The Wedding of Wasta and Corruption Provokes Increasing Outrage
The technical definition of corruption is when public officials and/or private citizens use state or public institutions, resources, or positions for private or personal political, economic, or social gain. This blurring of the boundaries between public and private can occur in any state, including established democracies. It is especially widespread in developing countries, where powerful ethnic, religious, or economic groups that have captured state institutions are loathe to give up the benefits that come with manipulating public offices. In the Middle East, this phenomenon has often equated with wasta, an Arabic term meaning intercession by individuals who have networks or connections that can be used to secure a wide range of services, benefits, or favors. The bureaucratization of traditional networks under the umbrella of state-led modernization has made wastaa vital element of everyday life, one that has been widely viewed as legitimate. But the growing capacity of powerful groups to secure benefits to which weaker groups do not have access has also transformed the notion of wasta.
Indeed, the use of intermediaries has become a handmaiden of corruption, thus provoking increased opposition from many citizens who had depended on what was previously viewed as a more benign form of wasta, such as client benefits. Some of the ire occasioned by this metamorphosis cuts across sectarian divides. Whether the protests attest to growing support for a more national-based identity, or in some cases a quest to share the spoils in ways that preserve or even strengthen sectarian solidarities, the result is the same: corruption is a major problem in the view of a large majority of Arabs. This was indeed reinforced by the results of the Arab Opinion Index of 2017-2018 which showed that more than three-fourths of the Arab public thought corruption is widespread. The concern is nearly matched by a widespread perception that escalating maldistribution of wealth flows from the ability of public officials and their allies in the private and public sectors to milk their positions for their personal or sectoral benefit.
While understandable, corruption is driven by a complex mix of forces; tackling them also involves complex and even difficult trade-offs. Thus, if the battle against this gathering hazard is to make any headway, the emerging leaders of the anti-corruption movement must grapple with some inconvenient realities, three of which are discussed below.
1. Democratic Change Fosters—and Can Even Expand—Corruption
There is no obvious relationship between corruption and regime type. While established democracies have institutional and legal assets to limit corruption, new democracies lacking these advantages often suffer from increasing and even rampant corruption. Moreover, the freeing of print and online media from state control gives these media the means and incentive to highlight the most egregious forms of corruption. Paradoxically, a more open political environment can foster an exaggerated perception of corruption in ways that undermine popular support for democracy. Conversely, some autocracies have judicial and administrative bodies that limit economic malfeasance, thus actually giving them an edge over some democracies.
The contrasting experiences of Middle Eastern states illustrates these different, and perhaps some surprising, relationships. For example, Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index of 2018 gave the United Arab Emirates a score of 70 (with 0 being “highly corrupt” and 100 “most clean”). With a ranking of 23 out of 180 countries, the UAE ranked as the least corrupt country in the Arab world. Although it has a fully autocratic regime that forbids elections and stifles dissent, the UAE appears to suffer from far less corruption than other Arab states. Tunisia, for example, as an emerging competitive democracy, received a score of 43 and a ranking of 73; and Kuwait, a semi-autocracy that has a lively parliament and periodic elections, scored 41 and a ranking of 78. These results may be partly explained by the fact that the UAE’s bribery and corruption legislation sets out penalties that go much further than similar legislation in the Gulf region. Moreover, whereas previously these laws applied only to UAE public officials, the laws (as amended in 2018) apply to public officials as well as to private sector actors who are UAE and foreign nationals, thus addressing the rampant corruption in the region.
These laws are far from perfect. Echoing the U.S. experience, the UAE’s real estate market is poorly regulated, a situation that has earned Dubai the dubious distinction, in the words of Transparency International, of being a “global hub for money laundering.” Still, if it is no Singapore—and while it enjoys the distinct advantage of having a small national population that is well provided for, thanks to the country’s massive oil income—the UAE’s experience nevertheless suggests that its autocracy provides a hedge against the kind of corruption that is far more rampant in more politically competitive, if poorer, Arab states.
The fact that more pluralistic political systems that allow for some measure of electoral competition can be especially vulnerable to corruption is not surprising. In Kuwait, Lebanon, and Iraq, parliaments and their elected officials play a vital role in distributing patronage to their constituencies. Thus, while Kuwait’s semi-authoritarian system gives the royal family a way to limit the authority of the parliament, this latter institution is not an empty shell. On the contrary, electoral competition is fierce precisely because Kuwaiti citizens depend on members of parliament (MPs) to secure their fair share of the many benefits that come from oil income.
Tunisia’s experience is also instructive. Its democratic transition expanded the opportunities for what political economists like to call “rent seeking.” State institutions, such as the port authority and the security apparatus, have played their part in this process by exacting tribute from foreign and domestic businessmen seeking to invest in the economy. But a more competitive electoral system also increased the number of MPs and ministers who have ties to business tycoons, not a few of whom were linked to the ancien regime. Indeed, the September 2017 passing of an “economic reconciliation” bill gave immunity to public officials who had been accused of corruption under President Zine El-Abidine ben Ali. While late President Beji Caid Essebsi insisted that his government was merely trying to improve the business climate, granting amnesty also carried with it the prospect of even more corruption. Although the law provoked a fire storm of criticism at home and abroad, it was supported by the Ennahda Party’s leaders, who argued that backing the law was necessary to maintain the power-sharing arrangement with Nidaa Tounes. It is tempting to dismiss such arguments as crass opportunism on Ennahda’s part. But in a proportional electoral system that has deprived any one party of a majority, the fact is that the fractious politics of alliance building often shapes economic policy making.
2. Fighting Organized State Corruption
The primacy of politics over economics was illustrated by the timing of Tunisia’s reconciliation law, which was passed some four months after the government of Prime Minister Youssef Chahed announced a “war on corruption” that reached its peak with the arrest of seven ancien regime tycoons. This sequence of events fed the perception that Chahed’s “war” was less about corruption than about settling scores in an unfolding power struggle within the Nidaa Tounes Party, whose support for the reconciliation law was widely viewed as a payoff to businessmen who had funded the president’s party. Whatever the veracity of this judgment, Tunisia’s experience underscores the obstacles to fighting corruption that are common to emerging democracies.
The demonstrators who have taken to the streets of many Middle Eastern cities, big and small, have focused their ire on the twin maladies of pervasive corruption and rampant inequality. The view that these two ills are closely aligned is certainly correct: the distribution of patronage has given state officials and their cronies in public and private sector businesses the opportunities to secure untold fortunes. In Egypt, Algeria, and Iran, and quite possibly Iraq, top security officials have captured a lot of this booty, thus ensuring that citizens who dare protest this system will face severe consequences. Despite such risks, citizens have taken to the streets because, as they have made crystal clear, they are fed up with the economic and social injustices that come with institutionalized corruption.
But in taking on this system, they face hurdles that are not limited to possible retribution from powerful security forces or militias such as Hezbollah or the Popular Mobilization Forces in Iraq. The larger structural obstacle they face is that decades of institutionalized corruption have drained state budgets, thus leaving governments with little choice but to print more money or borrow abroad. In Lebanon, this debilitating syndrome has helped to produce a public debt of $86 billion. Confronted by the prospect of macro-economic collapse and pressed by international banks and the IMF to get their houses in order, many Arab governments are reducing budgets, imposing new taxes, and depreciating their currencies. It was, of course, precisely such steps that provoked the street protests in the first place. The region’s besieged middle classes reject paying the price of austerity measures while a small and wealthy elite remains untouched. But if these sentiments are justified, the fact is that many patronage systems are running out of steam (and money). Organizations such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF) assert that such a situation cannot be remedied without major structural reforms. Indeed, the IMF argues such reforms are essential to fighting corruption. While this judgment may be correct, it is not easily absorbed by the region’s angry protesters. They want the entire system to be dismantled. But they lack a unified leadership that can channel their fury behind an organized quest to negotiate with regimes and power centers—ones that have the means and incentive to ignore their demands.
3. Is Religion the Answer?
Faced by such daunting challenges and, even more so, the difficult compromises that must be addressed when it comes to the problem of economic corruption, it is not surprising that some leaders in the region prefer to frame the problem in moral or religious terms. This approach suffers on several accounts. First, the evidence does not support the claim that the absence of religiosity has any major impact on whether state officials or private sector actors behave in a corrupt way. To wit, Catholicism remains widely practiced in Brazil although corruption is rampant there; by contrast, in Poland where Catholics are less observant, corruption is relatively limited.
Islamists, of course, argue that their religion tightly links faith and politics, thus ensuring that in the minds of most Muslims, Islam must be part of the solution. But this judgment ignores the diversity of opinion in the Muslim world regarding the relationship between mosque and state—even in Muslim-majority societies. In Tunisia and Iran there is significant support for keeping faith out of both politics and economics; moreover, those who proffer an Islamic solution risk undermining their own cause. In Iran, the clerics’ ties with corrupt institutions contradict the guiding principles of the Islamic Republic. In the Arab world, mainstream Sunni Islamists may not accord clerics the same level of authority, preferring instead the leadership of lay Muslim intellectuals such as Ennahda’s Rachid Ghannouchi. But Ennahda’s effort to play the role of an ordinary political party while retaining its Islamic credentials has undermined its credibility, not only with secular groups but within its own base. The elected speaker of Tunisia’s new parliament, Ghannouchi, is walking a fine line by advocating a campaign against corruption and calling for includingzakat in the finance bill—while also struggling to forge a governing coalition that, by some twist of fate, might even include1 the Qalb Tunis Party (Heart of Tunisia), whose leader, Nabil Karoui, is a prominent business tycoon who remains under investigation for money laundering. It may seem that opportunism is a requirement of coalition politics, yet its exercise by leaders who invoke religious pieties underscores the costs that come with any effort to champion an “Islamic” strategy for fighting corruption or economic inequality.
A Way Forward?
Given the daunting obstacles outlined above, today’s protesters must forge a strategy that will erode the power of deeply embedded political systems without provoking state repression or, perhaps worse, the prospect of escalating civil conflict. Civil society groups remain the most likely arenas for defining the long and uncertain path forward. On the domestic front, this will require new leaders; and on the global front, it will necessitate continued and defiant support from organizations such as Transparency International, Human Rights Watch, and the Open Society Foundation. In an age of populism that is infecting western governments, opponents of corruption and repression must look to new forms of international solidarity despite—or perhaps because of—the many hurdles before them.
Republished with permission from Arab Center Washington DC.
Daniel Brumberg is a Non-resident Senior Fellow at Arab Center Washington DC, Director of Democracy and Governance Studies at Georgetown University, and a Senior Non-Resident Fellow at the Project on Middle East Democracy (POMED). From 2008 through 2015 he also served as a Special Adviser at the United States Institute of Peace.
Two years ago on Feb. 24, 2022, the world watched as Russian tanks rolled into the outskirts of Kyiv and missiles struck the capital city.
Contrary to initial predictions, Kyiv never fell, but the country today remains embroiled in conflict. The front line holds in the southeastern region of the country, with contested areas largely focused on the Russian-speaking Donbas and port cities around the Black Sea.
Russian President Vladimir Putin, having recognized the Russian-occupied territories of Donetsk and Luhansk as independent days before the invasion, has from the beginning declared the war a “special military operation” to “demilitarize and denazify” Ukraine. His goals have alternated, however, between existential — bringing all of Ukraine into the influence of Russia — and strategic — laying claim to only those Russian-speaking areas in the east and south of the country.
It is in the latter that Russia has been much more successful. Yet after two winters of brutal fighting and hundreds of thousands of casualties on both sides, as of the end of 2023 Russia only laid claim to 18% of Ukraine’s territory, as compared to 7% on the eve of the war and 27% in the weeks after the invasion.
Meanwhile, the West’s coffers have been opened — and, as some say, drained — to help Ukraine’s government, led by President Volodymyr Zelensky, defend itself against Moscow.
Regardless, Ukraine’s military forces have been wholly depleted as they compete with a much more resourced and populous Russia. While Ukraine’s military campaign was able to take advantage of Russian tactical mistakes in the first year, its much-heralded counteroffensive in 2023 failed to provide the boost needed not only to rid the country of the Russian occupation, but also to put Kyiv in the best position to call for terms.
If anything, as Quincy Institute experts Anatol Lieven and George Beebe point out in their new brief, “there is now little realistic prospect of further Ukrainian territorial gains on the battlefield, and there is a significant risk that Ukraine might exhaust its manpower and munitions and lay itself open to a devastating Russian counterattack.”
The only and best solution, they say, is to drive all sides to the negotiating table before Ukraine is destroyed.
The narrative of the war — how it began, where it is today — is well documented. On the second anniversary of Russia’s full-scale invasion, RS thought it might be instructive to look at the numbers — weapons, aid, polling, population, and more — that illustrate the cost and the contours of the conflict over 24 months, and counting.
The U.S. Congress has allocated a total of $113 billion in funding related to the war. The vast majority of this money went directly to defending Ukraine ($45.2 billion in military aid) and keeping its government and society functioning ($46 billion in economic and humanitarian aid). Other funds went to rearming allies ($4.7 billion) and expanding U.S. military operations in Europe ($15.2 billion).
After two years of war, that funding has dried up. The Biden administration, which once shipped two or three new weapons packages each month, has not sent Ukraine a major arms shipment since Dec. 27, 2023. As Congress struggles to pass an additional $60 billion in Ukraine-related funding, observers increasingly believe that aid package may have been the last.
The Pentagon has sent at least 3,097,000 rounds of artillery to Ukraine since Russia’s invasion. Most of those (2,000,000) have been 155 mm shells, the standard size used by the U.S. and its NATO allies. For perspective, that’s about 95,000 tons of 155 mm ammunition alone.
Despite ramping up military manufacturing, the U.S. still only produces about 340,000 155 mm shells per year, meaning that Ukraine has been firing rounds at three times the rate of American production.
Washington has also given Kyiv 76 tanks, including 31 Abrams tanks and 45 Soviet-era T-72Bs. Ukraine has received 3,631 American armored vehicles of various types, from infantry fighting vehicles to personnel carriers and medical trucks.
Meanwhile, Ukraine has made use of 39 American-made HIMARS, a mobile rocket launcher that has become famous for its utility in the war. As for smaller arms, the U.S. has sent at least 400,000,000 grenades and bullets in the past 24 months.
The war has killed at least 10,378 civilians and injured an additional 19,632, according to the UN. More than three in four non-combatant casualties occurred in areas held by the Ukrainian government, indicating that Moscow is responsible for the lion’s share of civilian harm.
When it comes to military casualties, good data still remains hard to come by and estimates are sometimes wildly different. Neither Russia nor Ukraine have offered detailed, public indications of the war’s impact on their soldiers.
The U.S. estimated in August that 70,000 Ukrainian soldiers had died and an additional 100,000 to 120,000 had been injured, putting the number of total casualties at over 170,000. Russia, for its part, claimed in November that 383,000 Ukrainian soldiers had been killed or wounded.
On the other side, the United Kingdom estimates that Russia has suffered at least 320,000 casualties, with 50,000 deaths among Russian soldiers and 20,000 deaths among Wagner Group mercenaries. Washington said in December that Moscow had suffered 315,000 casualties, though American officials did not provide a breakdown of deaths and injuries.
The United Nations estimates that the Ukrainian population (the entire country within internationally recognized borders), which totaled 43.5 million people in 2021, dropped to 39.7 million in 2022 as war swept through the country’s east. This trend continued into 2023, as the population dropped to 36.7 million — the lowest level since Ukraine became independent in 1990.
As of January, 6.3 million Ukrainians have become refugees abroad, with another 3.7 million displaced internally. As the frontlines have settled, Ukraine’s population has slowly started to grow again, reaching 37.9 million in early 2024. Meanwhile, demographer Elena Libanova estimates that only 28 million of those people live within areas currently under Ukrainian government control (outside of Crimea and the Donbas).
Two new polls that came out within the last week illustrate the complexities of Americans’ feelings toward the war in Ukraine and the U.S. role in it.
First, a Pew poll published February 16 found that a large majority of Americans (74%) see the war between Russia and Ukraine as somewhat (30%) or very important (43%) to U.S. interests. And another survey, from the Harris Poll and the Quincy Institute, which publishes Responsible Statecraft, found that Americans broadly support a U.S.-led negotiated end to the conflict.
But the past few months in Washington have been largely focused on U.S. aid to Ukraine, specifically whether Congress will pass President Biden’s request for roughly $60 billion for Kyiv’s fight against Russia.
According to Pew, in March 2022, 74% of Americans said U.S. aid to Ukraine was “just right” or “not enough.” In December 2023, that same survey found that just 47% said the same. The biggest change came from Republicans: 49% said in March, 2022 that U.S. aid was “not enough,” while just 13% said the same in December.
Meanwhile, Gallup found in August 2022 that 74% of Americans said U.S. aid to Ukraine was “about right” (36%) or “not enough” (38%). Those numbers came down slightly in Gallup’s latest track on this question in October, 2023, with 58% saying U.S. aid was about right (33%) or not enough (25%).
There have been several attempts to bring nations together to outline talks to end the war. Russia and Ukraine engaged in five rounds of talks in Belarus and Turkey shortly after the invasion, but the talks collapsed amid allegations of Russian war crimes and Western pressure on Kyiv to keep fighting.
Since then, the belligerents have spoken directly about secondary issues, like Black Sea shipping and prisoner swaps. Ukraine, meanwhile, laid out a “10-point peace plan” that has formed the basis for five international summits, none of which included Russia. These took place in Copenhagen, Denmark, in June 2023; in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, in August 2023; in Malta in October, 2023; in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, in December 2023; and Davos, Switzerland, in January of this year.
Since the start of the war, Congress has passed four aid packages for Ukraine, totaling $113 billion. While none of the four packages were identical and aid for Ukraine was sometimes bundled with other spending, the trends for support for Kyiv in Congress are similar to those we see in polling, particularly among congressional Republicans.
The 2022 supplemental, which became law in May 2022 and provided Ukraine with $39.34 billion in aid passed the House 368-57 and the Senate by a vote of 86-11. By September 2023, when the House voted on the Ukraine Security Assistance and Oversight Supplemental Appropriations Act, which provided Kyiv with $300 million in security assistance, it passed by a vote of 311-117, with a majority of Republican members opposing the legislation.
On February 12 of this year, the Senate voted 70-29 to pass a national security supplemental, which would provide approximately $60 billion in aid for Kyiv alongside money for Israel and partners in the Indo-Pacific. The bill has not yet been voted on in the House.
Ben Armbruster, Blaise Malley, Connor Echols and Kelley Vlahos contributed reporting. Graphics by Khody Akhavi.
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A woman lays flowers at the monument to the victims of political repressions following the death of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, in Moscow, Russia February 16, 2024. REUTERS/Stringer
President Biden was entirely correct in the first part of his judgment on the death of Alexei Navalny: “Putin is responsible, whether he ordered it, or he is responsible for the circumstances he put that man in.” Even if Navalny eventually died of “natural causes,” his previous poisoning, and the circumstances of his imprisonment, must obviously be considered as critical factors in his death.
For his tremendous courage in returning to Russia after his medical treatment in the West — knowing well the dangers that he faced — the memory of Navalny should be held in great honor. He joins the immense list of Russians who have died for their beliefs at the hands of the state. Public expressions of anger and disgust at the manner of his death are justified and correct.
The problem comes with the other part of Biden’s statement, that “[Navalny’s death] is a reflection of who [Putin] is. And it just cannot be tolerated.” If he had said “approved,” “justified,” or “defended,” that would have been absolutely right. But “tolerated”? What can Biden do in response, that he has not done already?
The U.S. president has promised major new sanctions intended to “cut Russia off from the world economy” — but that requires Washington to control the world economy. Economic sanctions against Russia in response to the invasion of Ukraine have failed, and even strengthened the Russian economy and the state’s grip on it. They cannot be significantly extended, because this would damage and infuriate countries that are dependent on Russian energy exports, including India, a key U.S. partner. As to sanctions against Russian individuals part of or linked to the Russian regime, there are already thousands of them, and they have had no effect whatsoever.
Statements like Biden’s are both pointless and dangerous. For the spoken or unspoken implication is that it is impossible to deal with Putin. But like it or not, Putin is the president of Russia. To all appearances, he will remain so for a considerable time to come, and will hand over to a successor of his own choosing. The Biden administration has said that it wants Ukrainian victory (whatever that now means), but it has also said that it believes that the war will end in negotiations, and following the failure of last year’s Ukrainian offensive, is now reported to be moving in this direction.
Who does Biden think that he will negotiate with, if not Putin? Seeking talks on an end to the Ukraine war does not imply approval of Putin’s crimes or his invasion of Ukraine, any more than the Eisenhower administration’s negotiation of an end to the Korean War implied approval of the North Korean regime and its invasion of South Korea.
By its own account, the Biden administration has supposedly made the promotion of democracy around the world a central part of its diplomacy, with the clear implication that only democratic governments that respect human rights are truly legitimate. Actual U.S. diplomacy does not work like this and never has; not because of American imperialist or capitalist wickedness, but because the world does not work like this.
Nobody should be required to like or admire the governments of Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi, Mohammed Bin Salman or Narendra Modi (though we might well wish that U.S. officials had been less effusive in their praise of them). Like Putin, they are however the heads of their countries’ governments, and likely to remain so. You deal with Saudi Arabia and India — and you have to deal with Saudi Arabia and India — you deal with MBS and Modi.
The other thing to be wary of in the outpouring of outrage at the death of Navalny, is that this is already being used to build a strategy of greatly increased Western official support for the Russian opposition. Many (not all) people and groups in the Russian liberal opposition are personally and politically admirable. Some, like Navalny, have shown tremendous courage. To say this is quite different from believing that they are ever likely to form the government of Russia, and that the U.S. should base its policy towards Russia on the hope that this will be so.
The sad truth is that the Ukraine war has placed the Russian liberal opposition in a politically impossible position. Having been largely chased into exile by Putin, they are dependent on Western support. This means however that their principled opposition to the Russian invasion can be portrayed by the Russian government — and is seen by many ordinary Russians — as treason in time of war. As with the Iranian, Chinese, and other oppositions, official support from Washington only allows the ruling regimes to paint the name “traitor” in brighter colors.
A combination (differing from individual to individual) of idealism, dependence on the West and hatred of Putin means that instead of advocating a compromise peace in Ukraine, many Russian oppositionists have — willingly or unwillingly — identified themselves with Ukrainian and Western positions that explicitly demand complete Russian defeat.
And while not many Russians wanted the war, not many Russians want to see Russia defeated. As I have remarked before, even many Americans who strongly opposed the war in Vietnam were outraged when Jane Fonda went to Hanoi. If she stood a chance of being elected to any office in the U.S. before that trip, she certainly didn’t afterwards.
Any hope of rebuilding liberalism in Russia (and indeed Ukraine, albeit to a much lesser extent) therefore requires an end to the war. For some degree of authoritarianism is a natural accompaniment to every war, and regimes all over the world have exploited this to increase their own power. Equally importantly, mass support for Putin is critically dependent on the general belief that the West intends not just to defeat Russia but to cripple it as a state, and that to prevent this it is essential to support the government.
For the moment at least, this has eclipsed previously widespread resentments —which Navalny channeled — at regime corruption. No amount of Western or Russian opposition propaganda can change this Russian picture. Peace might, if it is given a chance.
For the third year in a row, globally, the number of investors in nuclear weapons producers has fallen but the overall amount invested in these companies has increased, largely thanks to some of the biggest investment banks and funds in the U.S.
“As for the U.S., while there is, like past years, indeed a dominance, and total financing from U.S.-based institutions has increased, the total number of U.S. investors has dropped for the third year in a row (similar to our global findings), and we hope to see this number will continue to fall in the coming years,” Alejandar Munoz, the report’s primary author, told Responsible Statecraft.
In 2023, the top 10 share and bondholders of nuclear weapons producing companies are all American firms. The firms — Vanguard, Capital Group, State Street, BlackRock, Wellington Management, Fidelity Investments, Newport Group, Geode Capital Holdings, Bank of America and Morgan Stanley — held $327 billion in investments in nuclear weapons producing companies in 2023, an $18 billion increase from 2022.
These companies are also profiting from the enormous government contracts they receive for developing and modernizing nuclear weapons.
“All nuclear-armed states are currently modernizing their nuclear weapon systems,” says the annual “Don’t Bank on the Bomb” report from PAX and ICAN. “In 2022, the nine nuclear-armed states together spent $82.9 billion on their nuclear weapons arsenals, an increase of $2.5 billion compared to the previous year, and with the United States spending more than all other nuclear powers combined.”
American weapons companies are some of the biggest recipients of contracts for nuclear weapons. Northrop Grumman and General Dynamics are “the biggest nuclear weapons profiteers,” according to the report. Combined, the two American weapons manufacturers have outstanding nuclear weapons related contracts with a combined potential value of at least $44.9 billion.
Those enormous government contracts for nuclear weapons, alongside contracts for conventional weapons, have helped make nuclear weapons producers an attractive investment for American investment banks and funds.
“Altogether, 287 financial institutions were identified for having substantial financing or investment relations with 24 companies involved in nuclear weapon production,” says the report. “$477 billion was held in bonds and shares, and $343 billion was provided in loans and underwriting.”
The report notes that while the total amount invested in nuclear weapons has increased, the number of investors has fallen and trends toward firms in countries with nuclear weapons.
ICAN and PAX suggest that concentration may be a result of prohibitions on nuclear weapons development for signatories to the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW), a 93 signatory treaty committing to the ultimate goal of the total elimination of nuclear weapons. The report says:
The TPNW comprehensively prohibits the development, manufacturing, testing, possession, use and threat of use of nuclear weapons, as well as assistance with those acts. For companies that build the key components needed to maintain and expand countries’ nuclear arsenals, access to private funding is crucial. As such, the banks, pension funds, asset managers and other financiers that continue to invest in or grant credit to these companies allow for the production of inhumane and indiscriminate weapons to proceed. By divesting from their business relationships with these companies, financial institutions can reduce available capital for nuclear weapon related activities and thereby be instrumental in supporting the fulfilment of the TPNW’s objectives.
Susi Snyder, managing director of the Don’t Bank on the Bomb Project, told Responsible Statecraft that even U.S. banks, like Pittsburgh based PNC Bank, are facing shareholder pressure to divest from nuclear weapons and that the tide may be shifting as shareholders in U.S. companies grow increasingly sensitive to investments in nuclear weapons.
“For three years shareholder resolutions have been put forward at PNC bank raising concerns that their investments in nuclear weapon producers are a violation of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW), and that they are not in line with the bank's overall human rights policy guidelines,” she said.