Iranian support for Arab militias has long threatened Iran's detractors, unable to develop an effective counterstrategy. Now, the tide may be turning.
A string of events suggests that the usefulness of at least some of the militias in Lebanon, Yemen, Iraq, and Palestine is waning as their popularity diminishes and relations with Iran encounter headwinds.
The militias’ changing fortunes and Iran’s seemingly reduced influence challenges fundamental strategic and defence concepts embraced by the Islamic Republic since the clergy-led revolution toppled the US-backed Shah in 1979.
“The overall picture is that Iran’s expansion peaked in 2018 and has since entered a new phase, in which Tehran has not suffered any strategic military setbacks but is hitting a wall. Iran’s biggest fundamental problem is that a majority of its allies … frequently succeed in armed confrontations. Yet they are subsequently incapable of ensuring political and economic stability,” said Middle East scholar Guido Steinberg.
Add to that, almost 43 years later, Iran is a revolution that, not unsurprisingly, has gone off the rails. Beyond widespread corruption and economic mismanagement, Iran has lost its initial pan-Islamic ecumenical revolutionary appeal to Shiites and Sunnis alike. Instead, Sunni Muslims today perceive it as a Shiite and Iranian nationalist force.
To be clear, Iran is not about to dump its non-state Arab allies. They remain too strong a military force to defeat and valuable leverage of Iranian regional power in Lebanon and Iraq even if they may be past the peak of their shelf life.
Moreover, groups like Lebanon’s Hezbollah and the Gaza Strip’s Hamas could force Israel to fight on two if not three fronts were Israel to strike against Iranian nuclear facilities.
As such, the strategy to build an outer defence line in Arab countries populated by local actors has paid off handsomely.
Hezbollah has become the most powerful political and military force in Lebanon, a player in the Syrian civil war, and a model for militias elsewhere.
Hamas has ruled the impoverished Gaza Strip since 2007 while the Houthis have stymied the Saudi war machine, if not, for all practical purposes, defeated the kingdom in an almost seven-year-long devastating war. Iraqi militias are a force unto themselves.
More troublingly, militias likes Hezbollah and Iranian-backed groups in Iraq have become increasingly identified with corrupt regimes that have responded violently to mass protests demanding wholesale change.
Meanwhile, Iran's ambassador to the Houthis in Yemen, Hasan Irlu, a close associate of General Qassem Soleimani, the powerful leader of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard’s expeditionary Quds Force, who was killed in an American drone strike in Baghdad last year, was reported to have died of Covid-19 while in transit in the kingdom en route to Iran.
Iranian officials blamed his death on a Saudi refusal to allow an Iranian aircraft to pick up the ambassador in the Yemeni capital of Sana'a and fly him directly to Tehran.
Houthi officials said that Mr. Irlu’s illness provided an “opportunity” for the rebels to demand his departure. They said the group had complained to the Iranian leadership about Mr. Irlu’s failure to coordinate with the rebels in his meetings with tribal and political leaders.
Similarly, Esmail Qaani, Mr. Soleimani's successor as commander of the Qods Force, encountered pushback when he met in July with pro-Iraqi militias In Baghdad. Mr. Qaani sought to ensure that they would refrain from attacking US targets in the runup to renewed nuclear negotiations in Vienna.
“Iran isn’t the way it used to be, with 100% control over the militia commanders,” said an Iraqi Shiite political leader
That is a realization that has yet to take root in Tehran, and once it does could have far-reaching consequences for Iranian policies and posture. Initially, Iran’s cost/benefit analysis is likely to conclude that the benefits of support for non-state Arab militias continue to outstrip the cost.
James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University, a syndicated columnist and the author of the blog, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer. A veteran, award-winning foreign correspondent whose career focused on ethnic and religious conflict, James focuses at RSIS on political and social change in the Middle East and North Africa, the impact of change in the Middle East and North Africa on Southeast and Central Asia and the nexus of sports, politics and society in the Middle East and North Africa and Asia.
A member of Lebanon's Hezbollah holds a Lebanese flag as he stands in front of a picture depicting senior Iranian military commander General Qassem Soleimani and Iraqi militia commander Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis who were killed in a U.S. attack, during a ceremony marking the first anniversary of their killing, in the southern village of Khiam, Lebanon January 3, 2021. REUTERS/Aziz Taher
Europeans have become increasingly pessimistic about the chances that Ukraine can recover territories that it has lost since the Russian invasion two years ago, according to a new poll of 12 EU member states.
And an aggregate average of 41 percent of respondents in the 12 countries said they would prefer that Europe “push Ukraine towards negotiating a peace with Russia” compared to 31 percent who said Europe “should support Ukraine in taking back the territories occupied by Russia.”
The poll, which was released by the European Council on Foreign Relations Wednesday, was conducted during the first half of January, before the latest advances by Russian forces in the Donetsk region of eastern Ukraine, notably in their takeover of the town of Avdiivka, which is likely to add to the impression that Kyiv is increasingly on the defensive.
The survey interviewed a total of more than 17,000 adults in the 12 countries, which included Austria, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Italy, the Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Spain and Sweden.
It found that continued support for Ukraine’s war aims was strongest in Sweden, Portugal, and Poland where pluralities of respondents said Europe should support Kyiv’s efforts to take back its territory. Support was weakest in Austria, Romania, Italy, Greece, and Hungary, where significant pluralities or large majorities in the five countries said Europe should focus on achieving a negotiated settlement. In France, Spain, the Netherlands, and Germany, opinion was more divided between the two alternatives.
The poll’s results offered a marked contrast to previous polling by ECFR, according to Ivan Krastev and Mark Leonard, co-authors of a report released with the survey. In June 2022, ECFR found that many Europeans favored a quick resolution to the war, even if that meant Ukraine would have to give up territory. But buoyed by Ukraine’s battlefield successes in regaining territory one year later, a subsequent poll in 2023 found that a plurality of respondents in nine EU countries that were surveyed at the time wanted to support Ukraine’s war aims and believed they were achievable.
“Now, in the aftermath of Ukraine’s disappointing counteroffensive and amid flagging support in Western capitals, some of that optimism seems to have dissipated,” according to the two co-authors.
Indeed, an aggregate average of only ten percent of respondents in the new poll now believe that Ukraine will defeat Russia, while twice as many, or 20 percent, believe that Moscow will prevail. Across all countries, a plurality of respondents (37 percent on average) believes that a compromise settlement between the two countries will be the most likely outcome.
The survey also queried respondents on the impact of a possible victory by former president Donald Trump in November’s U.S. elections on the Ukraine war. An aggregate average of 43 percent of respondents said a new Trump presidency would make a Ukrainian victory “less likely.” Asked what Europe should do if Trump were to end U.S. aid to Ukraine, an aggregate average of 41 percent respondents said they would favor maintaining (21 percent) or increasing (20 percent) aid to Kyiv, while a third of respondents said they would prefer to follow the U.S. in limiting assistance.
Prior to the war in Ukraine, Russian and Ukrainian interests had already been deadlocked in a heated battle.
But this clash wasn’t being waged on the streets of Kyiv, it was being fought on K Street in Washington D.C. The combatants donned suits, not camouflage. Their targets weren’t hardened military units, they were U.S. policymakers in Congress and the executive branch. Their goal wasn’t total victory, it was to win hearts, minds, and, above all, votes for their cause. This was the lobbying battle before the Ukraine war.
As I documented in a Quincy Institute brief, this David vs. Goliath style battle between a small, relatively low-funded, but remarkably zealous Ukrainian lobby had largely been thwarted by a multi-million dollar lobbying and PR campaign by Russian interests. But when Russian President Vladimir Putin made the disastrous decision to invade Ukraine two years ago, this Russian influence advantage in D.C. quickly evaporated. Within a week of the war's onset, U.S. sanctions effectively decimated Russia’s influence in Washington, forcing a number of top lobbying and public relations firms to sever ties with their Russian clients.
Since then the Ukraine lobby has been largely unopposed in its efforts to steer U.S. foreign policies related to the war. The Ukraine lobby has helped pave the way for more than $100 billion in U.S. assistance to Ukraine and meticulously crafted the media narrative to maintain U.S. public support for Ukraine’s war effort.
The Ukraine Lobby Since the War Began
In the two years since the war in Ukraine began, 46 different firms or individuals have been registered under FARA to represent Ukrainian interests. This includes lobbying heavyweights like BGR Government Affairs, Hogan Lovells, and Hill & Knowlton, as well as international public relations firms like Qorvis Communications. In total, these firms have received nearly $10.92 million from Ukrainian clients since 2022, according to FARA data compiled by OpenSecrets.
Just as in the year before the war — when FARA registrants reported conducting 13,541 political activities on behalf of their Ukrainian clients — the Ukraine lobby has been working feverishly since the war began. A Quincy Institute analysis of FARA records found that, since the war began, Ukrainian interests have reported doing more than 12,000 political activities on behalf of Ukrainian interests, primarily contacting Congress, the executive branch, and media outlets.
By far the busiest firm working on behalf of Ukrainian interests has been Yorktown Solutions, which has represented the Federation of Employers of the Oil and Gas Industry of Ukraine, the Civil Movement For a Just Ukraine, and the Primary Trade Union Organization of State Enterprise National Nuclear Energy Generating Company, better known as "Energoatom."
For just one of these clients — the Federation of Employers of the Oil and Gas Industry — Yorktown has reported doing 8,296 political activities since the war began. To put that remarkable workload in perspective, it equates to an average of more than 11 emails, phone calls, and meetings completed every day on behalf of just one client. No other foreign client registered under FARA has had more work done on their behalf in the past two years, according to a Quincy Institute analysis of FARA records.
Since the war began, Yorktown hasn’t hidden the fact that one of the primary objectives behind all this work is to increase U.S. military assistance to Ukraine. “We’ve gone from energy security to security,” Daniel Vajdich, President of Yorktown Solutions, told Politico less than a month after the war began, explaining the firm's shift away from lobbying related to the Nordstream 2 pipeline and towards acquiring U.S. military assistance for Ukraine.
Vajdich added that, “It is 24 hours, even when we’re sleeping the phone is on, and the phone is going off, and there are phone calls from Kyiv, and there are phone calls from others here in Washington both in and out of government … We speak to the administration. We speak to Capitol Hill. We certainly speak to media as well.”
In addition to its Ukrainian clients, Yorktown has also been working feverishly for the Centre for a European Future, reporting more than 4,000 political activities on behalf of the Belgium based non-profit whose objectives revolve heavily around Ukraine and include, “rebuilding Ukraine,” “joining NATO,” and “securing compensation for the war.”
The Pro-Bono Push for Ukraine
At just under $11 million in reported FARA spending by Ukrainian clients since the war began, the Ukraine lobby isn’t funded at the level of perennial influence powerhouses in Washington, like Saudi Arabia, whose lobbying and public relations firms have received more than $70 million from the Kingdom since 2022, according to OpenSecrets.
But, the actual dollar amount of spending on lobbying, public relations and the other influence efforts done on behalf of Ukrainian interests is deceptive, as many individuals, and even some of the most prominent lobbying firms in D.C., have been working for Ukraine pro-bono. In fact, of the 46 different firms and individuals that have been registered under FARA to represent Ukrainian clients, 29 have done the work for free.
Working for Ukraine pro-bono became somewhat trendy in the Washington influence industry shortly after the war began. Many of the firms registered under FARA to represent Ukrainian interests for free, however, appear to have done little work on behalf of Ukrainian interests. Some reported just a handful of contacts with congressional offices on behalf of Ukraine. Another reported a “one day pro bono effort” for a Ukrainian Parliamentary Delegation to the U.S. In one infamous case, a firm registered under FARA claiming to be working pro-bono for the Ukrainian ambassador to the United Nations, only to deregister just days later after the ambassador publicly explained that he was not actually working with the firm.
On the other hand, a number of lobbying and PR firms have done a considerable amount of work for Ukrainian interests at no charge to their clients. A Quincy Institute analysis of FARA records found that Plus Communications tops this list with nearly 3,000 political activities reported in its pro-bono work for the Ukrainian PR Army, a non-profit organization that purports to help, “global media tell the accurate story of this war through the perspectives of Ukrainian experts, authorities, and witnesses.”
Plus Communications’ work involved pitching interviews with prominent Ukrainian officials to seemingly every mainstream U.S. media outlet, including Fox News, The Washington Post, and NPR.
Another major pro-bono endeavor is being run on behalf of the Ministry of Culture and Informational Policy of Ukraine, specifically in relation to the ministry’s “Advantage Ukraine Initiative,” which seeks to attract international investment in Ukrainian industries, with the top choice being the defense industry.
Several firms are registered under FARA to support this pro-bono initiative, including Hill & Knowlton Strategies, Ogilvy Group, and Group M. The latter has reported nearly 300 emails to major media outlets, most of which were in reference to “ad materials” for Advantage Ukraine. The firm’s FARA filings show these ads include slogans like, “Davos is over. The opportunities in Ukraine have just begun,” and “Imagine an investment where you get applauded by shareholders AND the public?”
Group M’s collaborator on the Advantage Ukraine Initiative, Ogilvy Group, is also one of several firms that have been working pro-bono for Ukraine while taking money from firms that are profiting from the Ukraine war. As Eli Clifton and I previously reported for Responsible Statecraft, Hogan Lovells, BGR Government Affairs, Mercury Public Affairs, Navigators Global, and Ogilvy Group have all done pro-bono work for Ukraine interests while also lobbying on behalf of weapons makers that could profit from the war.
The Ukraine Lobby Today
While the size of the Ukraine lobby has decreased since the early months of the war, 18 firms are still registered under FARA to represent Ukrainian interests. Most of them are still doing the work pro-bono, and many of them remain intent on shaping U.S. foreign policy to Ukraine’s favor. More so than at any time since the war began though, they’re having to fend off an American public which increasingly believes the U.S. is providing too much aid to Ukraine. How this tension pans out remains to be seen, but there is little doubt that the Ukraine lobby has all the ammunition it needs to continue winning the lobbying battle in Washington.
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KYIV, UKRAINE - July 12, 2023: Destroyed and burned Russian military tanks and parts of equipment are exhibited at the Mykhailivska square in Kyiv city centre. (Oleksandr Popenko/Shutterstock)
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.