Cemil Bayik has a $4 million U.S. counterterrorism bounty on his head. But the Kurdish guerrilla leader says his forces have been meeting with U.S. troops — and he’s ready to make amends.
Bayik is a founding member and half of the two-person committee leading the Kurdistan Workers Party, usually known by its Kurdish initials, PKK. The militant group has fought a decades-long struggle against the Turkish government, earning it a place on the U.S. State Department’s terrorist list.
A contradiction in U.S. policy has given his group an opening. U.S. forces have relied on PKK-aligned militants, including the Sinjar Defense Units of Iraq and the Syrian Democratic Forces, to fight the Islamic State across the Middle East. And so the PKK has been pushing for closer relations with the United States, over the objections of NATO ally Turkey.
Responsible Statecraft was granted a rare, exclusive opportunity to interview one of the PKK’s elusive leaders. Hiding from Turkish drones in the Kandil mountains, Bayik provided answers to a series of questions sent to him in writing.
“We used to exchange indirect messages via Rojava and Sinjar,” Bayik said, referring to regions of northeast Syria and northwest Iraq controlled by Kurdish forces. “We have already sent letters to all U.S. presidents. Through different mediators, some of our units have had a few meetings with U.S. units at the local level.”
“They might have wanted to learn our views,” Bayik added, although he declined to provide further details about these meetings.
After years of helping Turkey fight the PKK in the name of counterterrorism, the United States may now be talking to the group — also in the name of counterterrorism. U.S. strategy in the Middle East, which has swung from fighting the Islamic State to countering Russian and Iranian influence, relies on the goodwill of Kurdish militants who are considered sworn enemies of an ally dating back to the Cold War.
Such a meeting was rumored to have taken place in August 2020, after Turkey launched air raids against the PKK on Iraqi soil. U.S. government sources denied the allegations at the time, according to the Washington-based news outlet Al Monitor.
U.S. forces did visit the area, as the Turkish airstrikes had “ruffled some feathers” among U.S.-backed Kurdish forces, and Washington wanted to reassure its partners, according to Aaron Stein, research director at the Foreign Policy Research Institute. But Stein was not sure whether U.S. units had actually met with their PKK counterparts.
U.S. Central Command, which oversees U.S. forces in the Middle East, gave a blanket denial of having met with the PKK. “CENTCOM was not involved in, nor is aware of, any such meetings,” U.S. Army Major John Rigsbee told Responsible Statecraft.
U.S. European Command, which oversees U.S. forces in Turkey, declined to comment. The Pentagon’s main press office did not respond to a request for comment.
Turkey has repeatedly accused the United States of supporting the PKK’s terrorism. The Turkish embassy did not respond to a request for comment as of press time,* but told Responsible Statecraft via email that it would reach out “if we have something.”
The U.S. State Department has listed the PKK as a foreign terrorist organization since the 1990s, when the group was led by Marxists and embroiled in a guerrilla war against the Turkish government. That war killed tens of thousands of people, with both sides allegedly committing war crimes.
Years later, the United States found itself on the same side as the PKK in its war against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.
U.S. forces re-entered Iraq in mid-2014 when it looked like the Yezidi people — who were being defended by the PKK on Mount Sinjar — were about to face genocide. The Obama administration then partnered with a collection of Kurdish militias now known as the Syrian Democratic Forces in a counteroffensive against the Islamic State.
Turkey sees the Syrian Democratic Forces as an extension of the PKK and accuses the United States of supporting terrorism.
Bayik denied that his group has “any organizational link” with the Syrian Democratic Forces, but claimed that “thousands of PKK sympathizers from all walks of life, undeterred by the attacks and obstacles of the Turkish army and police forces, marched over the border fences and joined the anti-ISIS fight.”
He admitted that many former PKK fighters of Syrian origin joined the Syrian Democratic Forces because they wanted to “wage struggle for the protection of their people and the freedom of their own lands, where they had been born.”
At the time that the U.S. partnership with the Syrian Democratic Forces began, the PKK and Turkey were engaged in peace talks. But the negotiations broke down in 2015, and the United States has since struggled to balance between its NATO ally and its Kurdish partners.
The Trump administration green-lit limited Turkish interventions against Syrian Kurdish forces and slapped multimillion-dollar counterterrorism bounties on PKK leaders — Bayik called the bounties “utter injustice and disrespect” — but also kept up U.S. support for the Syrian Democratic Forces.
Nicholas Heras, a senior analyst at the Newlines Institute, said that the United States “would naturally engage with the PKK” during the pre-2015 peace process, and “would still have the ability to engage with the PKK” after the breakdown of Turkish-Kurdish talks, “especially as it relates to seeking to clarify the role that the PKK would play in determining the choices made by America's closest Syrian partners.”
“The United States has a clear interest in resolving the longstanding conflict between its NATO ally, Turkey, and the PKK,” added Heras, who has advised the U.S.-led coalition in Iraq and Syria. “This conflict destabilizes a core, strategic area of the Middle East, and it contributes to the authoritarianism that is expanding within Turkey's political culture.”
Ben Friedman, policy director at Defense Priorities, disagrees that talking to the PKK is a good idea.
“I’m generally not too worried about the United States offending Turkey, but this seems to be a prize issue for them, and I’m not clear on what benefits it gains for us by meeting with the PKK,” he told Responsible Statecraft. “It speaks to how totally unclear it is what U.S. forces are up to in Syria, what the goal we’re trying to achieve by having this modest force is.”
The PKK argues that revoking the U.S. terrorism designation and the bounties on its leaders is part of the solution.
“Our guerrilla forces have never made any military action, direct or indirect, against the United States of America,” Bayik declared. “If the United States makes policies in favor of the solution of the Kurdish question and democratization, we will never oppose them.”
President Joe Biden “knows we have waged the greatest struggle against ISIS,” he claimed.
The PKK would not be the first group to make it off the U.S. terrorist list in recent years. In January, the Trump administration designated the Houthi movement of Yemen a terrorist group, which the incoming Biden administration quickly reversed. Last month, PBS published an interview with Al-Qaida’s former leader in Syria arguing that he, too, should be taken off the list.
Bayik added that the PKK now promotes “democratic socialism” rather than “such concepts as proletarian dictatorship.”
“From the 1990s on, our freedom movement has undergone great transformations,” he claimed, but the United States “has largely upheld the visions, arguments and policies characteristic of the Cold War era.”
Bayik said that his group is interested in a negotiated solution that involves democratizing Turkey as a whole, but the Turkish government only wants to “subject the Kurds to genocide.”
Turkey maintains that Kurds are not discriminated against. President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said in a speech last year that the PKK is “the biggest enemy of our Kurdish brothers.”
The aftermath of a February battle in Mount Gara in Iraq revealed how U.S. policy has left both Turkey and the Kurdish movement unhappy.
Turkish forces had attempted to rescue 13 prisoners of war being held by the PKK, but the operation left all of them dead. Turkey accused the PKK of executing the prisoners — and blamed the United States for its alleged soft line on Kurdish militancy.
"You said you did not support terrorists, when in fact you are on their side and behind them," Erdoğan said in a February speech. "If we are together with you in NATO, if we are to continue our unity, then you will act sincerely towards us. Then, you will stand with us, not with the terrorists."
Bayik, however, used that battle at Mount Gara as an example of how the PKK has rendered the West’s “high-tech weapons null and void.” He claimed that the prisoners were killed when Turkish forces used poison gas to assault the PKK base.
“Turkey uses all the weaponries of NATO. The USA and some European countries provide Turkey with all kind [sic] of support,” he said. “Despite this, our struggle has, for many times, taken the Turkish state to the verge of collapse.”
The PKK leader also chimed in about various regional political issues.
Bayik supported “the democratization of Iraq,” which “will make it hard for others to intervene in its internal affairs” but claimed that new prime minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi is “not in a position to [oppose] Iran and Turkey.”
He also commented on the 2015 nuclear deal between the United States and Iran, which the Biden administration is negotiating to re-enter.
“The success of the 2015 agreement would have positive results for all the peoples of the Middle East,” Bayik said. “Given the fact that democratization is the best approach to solve the problems in Iran, the public opinion, both at home and abroad, should not get engaged solely in the nuclear issue. The Islamic Republic of Iran needs to undergo a democratization process.”
And he expressed skepticism that the United States would ever lose interest in the Middle East.
“Today, Europe is, in a way, integrated with the Middle East. There is no decline in the strategic importance of neither Europe nor the Middle East,” Bayik asserted. “We don’t want to elaborate on the positive and negative dimensions of the changes in the United States’ focal points of interest. We don’t think that there will be a decline in the significance of the Middle East.”
Stein, however, warned that there is an “inherent contradiction” in U.S. policy in the region which cannot be resolved.
“As a matter of policy, the United States government supports the Turkish government’s right to strike the PKK, including the PKK leadership, and assists those strikes,” he told Responsible Statecraft, but “the entirety of U.S.-Syria policy is dependent on a PKK affiliate.”
“War is messy,” Stein added.
* After publication, the Turkish embassy wrote in an email to Responsible Statecraft that Bayik’s comments “have verified once again this inseparable connection between PKK and its Syrian offshoots.”
“Their connection is not merely ideological, but structural and operational as well. They are under the same chain of command. These points — substantiated with concrete documents — have been transmitted to the US and other international partners on every occasion,” the statement reads. “U.S. officials have repeatedly underlined the tactical, temporary and transactional nature of their relationship with the separatist illegitimate entity. However, facts on the ground proved the opposite.”
The embassy emphasized the high death toll of the PKK’s “brutal terror campaign” and its threat to “the security and sovereignty of Iraq” as well as NATO forces in Iraq.
“Turkey expects that its allies show solidarity in the fight against this terrorist organization rather than paying…lip service,” the statement concludes. “This includes [avoiding] any sort of contact with these terrorists since the opposite could be construed as condoning terrorism.”
Editor's note: This article has been updated to clarify Cemil Bayik's status as founding member of the PKK.
Update: The Kurdistan Democratic Communities Union, the political front to which the PKK belongs, published its own version of the interview after this article was published. Responsible Statecraft’s questions were apparently translated into a different language and back into English, while Bayik’s answers were slightly changed.
Most significantly, Bayik’s original written answer to Responsible Statecraft stated that “[m]any of the Syrian Kurdish leaders have stayed with the PKK for tens of years.” However, the version posted by the Kurdistan Democratic Communities Union specifically names Mazloum Abdi and Ilham Ahmed, the military and political leaders of the Syrian Kurdish forces, as former PKK members.
Matthew Petti is an independent journalist and a non-resident fellow at the Kurdish Peace Institute. He worked for various Jordanian news outlets as a 2022-2023 Fulbright fellow. Previously, he worked as a reporter at Responsible Statecraft and a national security reporter at The National Interest. His work has appeared in The Intercept, The Daily Beast, and Reason Magazine.
Hadeel Oueis is a Washington DC based political writer with focus on the U.S. foreign policy In the Middle East. She is news analyst for BBC, France 24, DW Arabic and other international news channels. She is the host of Washington Online show that broadcasts from Bethesda, MD.
Cemil Bayik, a founding member of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), speaks during an interview with Reuters at the Qandil mountains near the Iraq-Turkey border, October 19, 2013. Kurdish rebels are ready to re-enter Turkey from northern Iraq, Bayik, the head of the group's political wing said at his mountain hideout, threatening to rekindle an insurgency unless Ankara resuscitates their peace process soon. Picture taken October 19. To match Interview TURKEY-KURDS/PKK REUTERS/Stringer (IRAQ - Tags: POLITICS CIVIL UNREST HEADSHOT SOCIETY)
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.
keep readingShow less
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.