Last month, Rolling Stone reported that Erik Prince, co-founder of Blackwater Security — which was sold in late 2010 to a group of investors — wants to bring the mercenary group back to its “glory days” of the Bush era.
A full-page ad in the January/February 2019 edition of Recoil magazine featured the old school Blackwater bear-paw logo of the controversial private security firm below the words, “We are coming.” Some observers thought this suggested a resurgent Blackwater might contract with the government to carry out a privatized war in Afghanistan. Others thought it a clever “campaign to draw attention to Blackwater Ammunition, a fledgling joint venture between Blackwater founder and CEO Erik Prince and Italian gun and ammunition designer Nicola Bandini and James Fenech in Malta.”
One should at least consider the possibility that Prince is serious, because if the passage of time tells us anything it is that Prince, long known as the Energizer Bunny of the private military and security contracting, or PMSC industry, just keeps going and going and going.
So, the question to ponder is, if Prince does reassume control of Blackwater and once again focuses on providing security contractors for conflict zones — and offers his services to the U.S. government — should the government accept?
The answer is an emphatic no. Why not? Because Prince cannot be trusted, for reasons beyond the infamous Nisour Square massacre in which Blackwater mercenaries killed 17 Iraqi civilians.
Consider what happened to the four Blackwater contractors killed in the 2004 Fallujah ambush.
Eager to get business in Iraq, Blackwater reduced the prep and planning time for the security detail so some employees were sent out on their first day on the job, It was Blackwater that decided to send out a four man detail instead of six; it was Blackwater that decided to send the detail out in soft-skinned Mitsubishis instead of contract-mandated fully armored vehicles. It was Blackwater that decided not to give the detail the weapons required by contract.
Blackwater claimed, according to Congressional documents, that it "plays no role in the development or planning of the contractors' security missions” and "has little if any knowledge regarding the location or activities of these independent contractors.” We know that is a lie because the investigation into the killing of the contractors revealed that Blackwater was intensely involved in the development or planning of the contractor's security missions or the directions on implementing them.
If Prince had done something similar while he was a SEAL junior officer, he would likely have been court-martialed for gross negligence of duty. A man who is unwilling to properly equip and train the men he sends into a war zone is morally reprehensible.
This debacle marks the pattern of how Prince does business. He is a war profiteer who appears to want to do literally anything to make a buck.
Fallujah is hardly the only example of Prince’s ethical failings. In 2019, the House Intelligence Committee referred Prince to the Department of Justice for possible prosecution on perjury charges stemming from his deceptive account regarding his 2017 meeting with Kirill Dmitriev, the head of Russia’s sovereign wealth fund, to Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation.
Empty Wheel recently reported that the Justice Department-released FBI report forms make it clear “that Prince walked into the meeting hoping to make a buck and denied to the FBI knowing that making a buck from Dmitriev would require lifting sanctions on Russia.”
Aside from his lack of ethics, a revitalized Blackwater under the control of Prince raises other troubling questions. Who exactly would Erik Prince work for?
Per a 2012 Deferred Prosecution Agreement, Prince was forced to sell Blackwater, renamed Academi, pay a massive $7.5 million fine, and reach a $42 million civil settlement with the State Department to avoid being charged with violations of the Arms Export Control Act. The agreement allowed him to keep ownership of 17 affiliated entities: Al Zulama Company, Apex Management Systems LLC, ARES Holdings, Inc., Back-Up Training, LLC, Greystone Ltd., Greystone SRL, GSD Manufacturing LLC, Guardian Flight Systems LLC, Paravant LLC, Pelagian Maritime, LLC, Prince Group, LLC, Salamis Aviation LLC, Samarus Co. LTD, Technical Defense, Inc., Terrorism Research Center, Inc., Total Intelligence Solutions LLC, and Xe Aviation LLC.
After this agreement, Prince said that he was done working for the U.S. government, claiming he had been stabbed in the back. After a hiatus in Abu Dhabi from 2010 to 2012, he returned to the U.S. to pitch the Trump administration on a number of projects. Among them: replacing U.S. troops in Afghanistan with a force of private security contractors for $3.5 billion. ITAR, or the International Traffic in Arms Regulations, forced him to use a proxy called “L6” to make the actual proposal to the Afghan government.
But let’s assume he refrains from U.S. government work. To who else could he turn? China, for one. He is already working for them as Executive Deputy Chairman of the Board of Frontier Services Group, which has ties to the CITIC Group, a state-run investment fund owned and controlled by the People's Republic of China. CITIC is FSG's largest shareholder. According to Rolling Stone, the role puts Prince “in the unsettling position of advancing the strategic agenda of the United States’ largest rival.”
Others put it less politely. According to Adam Silverman, “The important fact that everyone keeps missing is that Erik Prince’s operations are funded by the People’s Republic of China. He is now their asset…Prince’s financial backing from the PRC state-owned Chinese International Trust Investment Corporation or CITIC, their sovereign investment bank, means that Prince works for the PRC and does so only as long as he advances their interests.”
After FSG signed contracts to support China's Belt and Road Initiative, Prince bragged about expansion into the Xinjiang province, which included supporting the construction and staffing of “re-education” camps. After the Chinese press release from FSG was discovered, Prince quickly denied knowledge of the deal.
The United Nations is currently investigating Prince’s involvement in what they call “Project Opus,” an assassination and military effort designed to provide support to Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar’s stalled attempt to dislodge the U.S and U.N. supported government of Libya. This is a blatant violation of the U.S. Neutrality Acts generally, and a violation of the U.N. arms embargo on Libya specifically. Not surprisingly, the mercenaries involved ended up fleeing for their lives in a rubber boat after the plan fell apart.
The Intercept reported that Prince is under FBI investigation for his 2015 attempt to modify two American-made crop-dusting planes into attack aircraft — a violation of arms trafficking regulation. It is thought that the FBI is preparing charges on at least two counts, including money laundering and providing weapons to Libya. Unless President Trump pressures Attorney General Barr, or uses the National Security Council to pressure the FBI to drop the investigation before Trump leaves office, it will likely continue in a Biden presidency.
In April, the Intercept reported that Prince “met earlier this year with a top official of Russia’s Wagner Group and offered his mercenary forces via Uganda-based Energia Raptor and Israeli drone companies to support Russia’s operations in Libya and Mozambique. It was clear that Wagner had come in to replace Prince’s own failed mercenary operations in both nations.
Now that the Trump presidency is soon to be over, the clock may have run out for Prince, a man who, based on investigations and his multiple op-eds and interviews, was angling to provide mercenaries and armed contractors to Afghanistan, Libya, Venezuela, Syria, Mozambique, and other venues. Official U.S. theaters of military operation will certainly be closed off to Prince under President Biden, pushing him back into the shadows, desperate for work from Middle Eastern dictators and African strongmen. And that means he will be even more willing to pursue dodgy deals in strife-torn countries.
The more dangerous aspect of Prince’s operations may not be mercenaries but his love of the dark arts. He has been linked to various disinformation and social media influence operations in the U.S. Prince is linked to the Wiener laptop scam where he falsely claimed there was child porn on Weiner’s laptop, and has links to Steve Bannon and Cambridge Analytica as well as Project Veritas, a right wing group infamous for concocting elaborate and illegally questionable “sting operations.” It was Prince who set up a meeting between Donald Trump, Jr. and Israeli Joel Zamel at Trump Tower in August of 2016 to create “Project Rome.” At the time Zamel was the owner of Psy-Group, a now defunct Israeli private intelligence organization which primarily employed ex-Mossad agents and other former Israeli government intelligence operatives and sported the slogan “Shape Reality” as its motto.”
So, while Erik may not be living his dream of being a mercenary, expect his malign activities to continue to threaten America and the world while Trump ponders his future and 2024.
David Isenberg is an independent researcher and writer on U.S. military, foreign policy, and national and international security issues. He a senior analyst with the online geopolitical consultancy Wikistrat and is a U.S. Navy veteran. He is the author of "Shadow Force: Private Security Contractors in Iraq". His blog, The PMSC Observer, focuses on private military and security contracting, a subject he has testified on to Congress.
Erik Prince arrives New York Young Republican Club Gala at The Yale Club of New York City in Manhattan in New York City, New York, U.S., November 7, 2019. REUTERS/Jeenah Moon
Ukraine would consider inviting Russian officials to a peace summit to discuss Kyiv’s proposal for a negotiated end to the war, according to Andriy Yermak, the Ukrainian president’s chief of staff.
“There can be a situation in which we together invite representatives of the Russian Federation, where they will be presented with the plan in case whoever is representing the aggressor country at that time will want to genuinely end this war and return to a just peace,” Yermak said over the weekend, noting that one more round of talks without Russia will first be held in Switzerland.
The comment represents a subtle shift in Ukrainian messaging about talks. Kyiv has long argued that it would never negotiate with Russian President Vladimir Putin, yet there is no reason to believe Putin will leave power any time soon. That realization — along with Ukraine’s increasingly perilous position on the battlefield — may have helped force Kyiv to reconsider its hard line on talking with the widely reviled Russian leader.
Zelensky hinted at a potential mediator for talks following a visit this week to Saudi Arabia. The leader “noted in particular Saudi Arabia’s strivings to help in restoring a just peace in Ukraine,” according to a statement from Ukrainian officials. “Saudi Arabia’s leadership can help find a just solution.”
Russia, for its part, has signaled that it is open to peace talks of some sort, though both Kyiv and Moscow insist that any negotiations would have to be conducted on their terms. The gaps between the negotiating positions of the two countries remain substantial, with each laying claim to roughly 18% of the territory that made up pre-2014 Ukraine.
Ukraine’s shift is a sign of just how dire the situation is becoming for its armed forces, which recently made a hasty retreat from Avdiivka, a small but strategically important town near Donetsk. After months of wrangling, the U.S. Congress has still not approved new military aid for Ukraine, and Kyiv now says its troops are having to ration ammunition as their stockpiles dwindle.
Zelensky said Sunday that he expects Russia to mount a new offensive as soon as late May. It’s unclear whether Ukrainian troops are prepared to stop such a move.
Even the Black Sea corridor — a narrow strip of the waterway through which Ukraine exports much of its grain — could be under threat. “I think the route will be closed...because to defend it, it's also about some ammunition, some air defense, and some other systems” that are now in short supply, said Zelensky.
As storm clouds gather, it’s time to push for peace talks before Russia regains the upper hand, argue Anatol Lieven and George Beebe of the Quincy Institute, which publishes Responsible Statecraft.
“Complete victory for Ukraine is now an obvious impossibility,” Lieven and Beebe wrote this week. “Any end to the fighting will therefore end in some form of compromise, and the longer we wait, the worse the terms of that compromise will be for Ukraine, and the greater the dangers will be for our countries and the world.”
In other diplomatic news related to the war in Ukraine:
— Hungary finally signed off on Sweden’s bid to join NATO after the Swedish prime minister met with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban in Budapest, according to Deutsche Welle. What did Orban get for all the foot dragging? Apparently just four Swedish fighter jets of the same model that it has been purchasing for years. The prime minister blamed his party for the slow-rolling, saying in a radio interview prior to the parliamentary vote that he had persuaded his partisans to drop their opposition to Sweden’s accession.
— French President Emmanuel Macron sent allies scrambling Tuesday when he floated the idea of sending NATO troops to Ukraine, according to the BBC. Leaders from Germany, the United Kingdom, Italy, Poland, and other NATO states quickly swatted down the idea that the alliance (or any individual members thereof) would consider joining the war directly. Russia said direct conflict with NATO would be an “inevitability” if the bloc sent troops into Ukraine.
— On Wednesday, Zelensky attended a summit in Albania aimed at bolstering Balkan support for Ukraine’s fight against Russia, according to AP News. The Ukrainian leader said all states in the region are “worthy” of becoming members of NATO and the European Union, which “have provided Europe with the longest and most reliable era of security and economic development.”
— Western officials were in talks with the Kremlin for a prisoner swap involving Russian dissident Alexei Navalny prior to his death in a Russian prison camp in February, though no formal offer had yet been made, according to Politico. This account contrasts with the one given by Navalny’s allies, who claimed that Putin had killed the opposition leader in order to sabotage discussions that were nearing a deal. Navalny’s sudden death has led to speculation about whether Russian officials may have assassinated him, though no proof has yet surfaced to back up this claim. There is, however, little doubt that the broader deterioration of the dissident’s health was related to the harsh conditions he was held under.
U.S. State Department news:
In a Tuesday press conference, State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller said the situation on the frontlines in Ukraine is “extremely serious.” “We have seen Ukrainian frontline troops who don’t have the ammo they need to repel Russian aggression. They’re still fighting bravely. They’re still fighting courageously,” Miller said. “They still have armor and weapons and ammunition they can use, but they’re having to ration it now because the United States Congress has failed to act.”
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Janet Yellen, United States Secretary of the Treasury. (Reuters)
On Tuesday, U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen strongly endorsed efforts to tap frozen Russian central bank assets in order to continue to fund Ukraine.
“There is a strong international law, economic and moral case for moving forward,” with giving the assets, which were frozen by international sanctions following Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine, to Kyiv, she said to reporters before a G7 meeting in San Paulo.
Furthermore on Wednesday, White House national security communications adviser John Kirby urged the use of these assets to assist the Ukrainian military.
This adds momentum to increasing efforts on Capitol Hill to monetize the frozen assets to assist the beleaguered country, including through the “REPO Act,” a U.S. Senate bill which was criticized by Senator Rand Paul (R-Ky.) in a recent article here in Responsible Statecraft. As Paul pointed out, spending these assets would violate international law and norms by the outright seizure of sovereign Russian assets.
In the long term, this will do even more to undermine global faith in the U.S.-led and Western-centric international financial system. Doubts about the system and pressures to find an alternative are already heightened due to the freezing of Russian overseas financial holdings in the first place, as well as the frequent use of unilateral sanctions by the U.S. to impose its will and values on other countries.
The amount of money involved here is considerable. Over $300 billion in Russian assets was frozen, mostly held in European banks. For comparison, that’s about the same amount as the entirety of Western aid committed from all sources to Ukraine since the beginning of the war in 2022 — around $310 billion, including the recent $54 billion in 4-year assistance just approved by the EU.
Thus, converting all of the Russian assets to assistance for Ukraine could in theory fully finance a continuing war in Ukraine for years to come. As political support for open-ended Ukraine aid wanes in both the U.S. and Europe, large-scale use of this financing method also holds the promise of an administrative end-run around the political system.
But there are also considerable potential downsides, particularly in Europe. European financial institutions hold the overwhelming majority of frozen Russian assets, and any form of confiscation could be a major blow to confidence in these entities. In addition, European corporations have significant assets stranded in Russia which Moscow could seize in retaliation for the confiscation of its foreign assets.
Another major issue is that using assets to finance an ongoing conflict will forfeit their use as leverage in any peace settlement, and the rebuilding of Ukraine. The World Bank now estimates post-war rebuilding costs for Ukraine of nearly $500 billion. If the West can offer a compromise to Russia in which frozen assets are used to pay part of these costs, rather than demanding new Russian financing for massive reparations, this could be an important incentive for negotiations.
In contrast, monetizing the assets outside of a peace process could signal that the West intends to continue the conflict indefinitely.
In combination with aggressive new U.S. sanctions announced last week on Russia and on third party countries that continue to deal with Russia, the new push for confiscation of Russian assets is more evidence that the U.S. and EU intend to intensify the conflict with Moscow using administrative mechanisms that won’t rely on support from the political system or the people within them.
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Activist Layla Elabed speaks during an uncommitted vote election night gathering as Democrats and Republicans hold their Michigan presidential primary election, in Dearborn, Michigan, U.S. February 27, 2024. REUTERS/Rebecca Cook
A protest vote in Michigan against President Joe Biden’s handling of the war in Gaza dramatically exceeded expectations Tuesday, highlighting the possibility that his stance on the conflict could cost him the presidency in November.
More than 100,000 Michiganders voted “uncommitted” in yesterday’s presidential primary, earning 13.3% of the tally with most votes counted and blasting past organizers’ goal of 10,000 protest votes. Biden won the primary handily with 81% of the total tally.
The results suggest that Biden could lose Michigan in this year’s election if he continues to back Israel’s campaign to the hilt. In 2020, he won the state by 150,000 votes while polls predicted he would win by a much larger margin. This year, early polls show a slight lead for Trump in the battleground state, which he won in 2016 by fewer than 11,000 votes.
“The war on Gaza is a deep moral issue and the lack of attention and empathy for this perspective from the administration is breaking apart the fragile coalition we built to elect Joe Biden in 2020,” said Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), a progressive leader who has called for a ceasefire in Gaza, as votes came in last night.
Biden still has “a little bit of time to change this dynamic,” Jayapal told CNN, but “it has to be a dramatic policy and rhetorical shift from the president on this issue and a new strategy to rebuild a real partnership with progressives in multiple communities who are absolutely key to winning the election.”
Rep. Ro Khanna, a prominent Biden ally, told Semafor the vote is a “wake-up call” for the White House on Gaza.
The “uncommitted” option won outright in Dearborn, a Detroit suburb with a famously large Arab American population. The protest vote also gained notable traction in college towns, signaling Biden’s weakness among young voters across the country. “Uncommitted” received at least 8% of votes in every county in Michigan with more than 95% of votes tallied.
The uncommitted campaign drew backing from prominent Democrats in Michigan, including Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) and state Rep. Abraham Aiyash, who is the majority leader in the Michigan House. Former Reps. Andy Levin and Beto O’Rourke, who served as a representative from Texas, also lent their support to the effort.
“Our movement emerged victorious tonight and massively surpassed our expectations,” said Listen to Michigan, the organization behind the campaign, in a statement last night. “Tens of thousands of Michigan Democrats, many of whom [...] voted for Biden in 2020, are uncommitted to his re-election due to the war in Gaza.”
Biden did not make reference to the uncommitted movement in his victory speech, but reports indicate that his campaign is spooked by the effort. Prior to Tuesday’s vote, White House officials met with Arab and Muslim leaders in Michigan to try to assuage their concerns about the war, which has left about 30,000 Palestinians dead and many more injured. (More than 1,100 Israelis died during Hamas’s Oct. 7 attacks last year.)
The president argues that his support for Israel has made it possible for him to guide the direction of the war to the extent possible, though his critics note that, despite some symbolic and rhetorical moves, he has stopped far short of holding back U.S. weapons or supporting multilateral efforts to demand a ceasefire.
Campaigners now hope the “uncommitted” effort will spread to other states. Minnesota, which will hold its primaries next week, is an early target.
“If you think this will stop with Michigan you are either the president or paid to flatter him,” said Alex Sammon, a politics writer at Slate.
Meanwhile in the Republican primary, former President Donald Trump fended off a challenge from former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley. With 94% of votes in, Trump came away with 68% of the vote, while Haley scored around 27%.