It was always going to be a David vs. Goliath fight. The Russian forces had all the resources, all the numbers, and seemed on the slow march to victory. But Ukraine’s forces, though completely outgunned, were not about to back down. They were scrappy and fought tirelessly, seemingly running circles around the Russian forces they were up against. Dealing setback after setback to the Russian aggressors.
While this might sound like the current military conflict between Russia and Ukraine, this battle was actually fought all over D.C. from K Street to Capitol Hill, the White House, the State Department, think tanks, and seemingly everywhere in-between. This is the story of the war for Washington influence the two countries have been waging for years.
In this battle, as in the military fight, the Russians have enjoyed an enormous advantage in resources. From lobbyists on the Hill to a large state-sponsored media operation, Russian interests have spent at least $182 million on legal influence operations in the United States since 2016, according to OpenSecrets. For the last six years, Russian interests have spent more than 14 times as much as Ukrainian interests on Foreign Agents Registration Act firms. This, of course, doesn’t include the sizable resources Russia has devoted to exerting influence illicitly, including meddling in the 2016 and 2018 U.S. elections.
But the Ukrainians were zealous in defending their positions. Though grossly outnumbered and outspent, the Ukraine lobby vastly outworked its Russian counterpart in a remarkable lobbying and public relations blitz on and off Capitol Hill. In just 2021, House and Senate staff and members of Congress were on the receiving end of more than 8,000 emails, phone calls, and meetings with Ukraine’s lobbyists.
All of this led to something of a stalemate, particularly on the most bitterly contested issue in the lobbying war: the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline. Providing a direct connection between Russia and Germany and the rest of the Western European energy market, the pipeline, once operational, could cost Ukrainian interests billions a year in gas transit fees. The Biden administration lifted Trump-era sanctions on the pipeline in early 2021, and construction was completed last September. But fervent opposition to the pipeline persisted, and Congress had twice threatened newsanctions on the pipeline in early 2022, before the war’s outbreak.
This stalemate ended abruptly last week when the Russian lobbying forces were swiftly and decisively defeated by, well, Moscow itself. When Russian President Vladimir Putin launched his invasion of Ukraine, he effectively gave the Ukraine lobby what it had been working towards for years. In one fateful blunder, Putin gave the game away and ceded whatever sway he still enjoyed in Western capitals from Washington to Berlin.
Following the invasion, the Germans dealt the first and perhaps most serious blow to Putin’s international ambitions by announcing they would halt certifying the Nord Stream 2 pipeline.
Then it was the Biden administration's turn. In a series of sanctions, the Biden administration effectively severed ties between Russian interests and the prominent D.C. lobbying firms representing them.
Biden began by announcing U.S. sanctions on Nord Stream 2 early last week and, in subsequent days, issued additional sanctions on the vast majority of the Russian financial sector. All of this very quickly led to at least six lobbying firms to cut ties with their newly sanctioned Russian energy or bank clients.
To be clear, many of these firms weren’t dropping their Russian clients out of the goodness of their hearts. As Erich Ferrari, an attorney who specializes in U.S. economic sanctions explained to CNN, dropping fully sanctioned clients, "is not a gesture in solidarity with Ukraine, this is a requirement under U.S. law," and lobbyists that don’t ditch these clients could be prosecuted for violating the sanctions.
The Ukraine lobby, for its part, took something of a victory lap, praising Germany’s decision on Nord Stream 2, but also quickly went to work to ensure it was just the beginning of Putin’s pain. As Daniel Vajdich — the President of Yorktown Solutions, which spearheaded the campaign in Washington to block Nord Stream 2 — explained, his forces were determined to go further by, “creating an infrastructure in terms of financial sanctions against Russian financial institutions, including the central bank, that will allow us to go after the Russian energy industry.”
Prior to the invasion, this would have been unthinkable. With some of the top lobbying firms in D.C., including BGR Government Affairs, Venable, and Mercury Public Affairs, working for them, Russian interests had largely evaded sanctions and were poised to begin pumping gas through the Nord Stream 2 pipeline.
Putin’s decision to invade changed all of that overnight by crippling Moscow’s influence machine in the United States Less than a week later, the lobbying and PR firms are almost all gone, Nord Stream 2 has reportedly filed for bankruptcy, although company officials are denying that, and Russian state media in the United States has been largely silenced. Visitors to RT’s website, for example, are now getting an error message.
Thus, Putin started a war in Ukraine and guaranteed his country’s defeat in the lobbying battle for D.C.
Ben Freeman is Director of the Democratizing Foreign Policy program at the Quincy Institute. He investigates money in politics, defense spending, and foreign influence in America. He is the author of The Foreign Policy Auction, which was the first book to systematically analyze the foreign influence industry in the United States.
DOHA, QATAR — The U.S. veto of the UN Security Council vote for a ceasefire in the war in Gaza is being met with widespread anger and frustration by the international community and especially in the Arab world, as reflected in opening remarks at the 21st Doha Forum in Qatar on Sunday.
Addressing the forum, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres said the vote was “regrettable…that does not make it less necessary. I can promise that I will not give up.” He said since the Oct. 7 attack by Hamas in Israel and the ensuing Israeli retaliation in Gaza, “the Council’s authority and credibility were seriously undermined” by a succession of failed votes to respond to ongoing civilian carnage on the Strip.
Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al-Thani, foreign minister of Qatar, said the current crisis and the U.S. reaction to it, including its thwarting of the ceasefire call (it was the only vote of disapproval; the UK abstained) was exposing the “great gap between East and West ... and double standards in the international community.” He pointed to those drawing attention to war crimes in “other contexts” (no doubt referring to Russia in Ukraine ) “hesitating to call for the end of these crimes in the Gaza strip.”
He repeatedly called for the creation of new multipolar world order that "respects justice and equality between the people where no people are more powerful than the other."
The U.S. said it did not approve the ceasefire resolution Friday because of the lack of condemnation of Hamas in the language, and that it not include a declaration of Israel’s right to defend itself. U.S. ambassador Robert Wood said halting Israel’s military action would “only plant the seeds for the next war.”
The result is that people here at the forum say they are more convinced than ever that U.S. policy is reflexively and intimately intertwined with Israel's activities in Gaza. As Mohammad Shtayyeh, prime minister of Palestine, charged, Washington has given the “greenest of green lights” to what Israel is doing on the ground. This was exacerbated this weekend with news that the Biden Administration is bypassing Congressional review to send 13,000 tank rounds to Israel. This, despite efforts by Democrats in his own party to condition the transfer of offensive weapons to prevent their use against civilians.
Meanwhile, humanitarian advocates repeatedly called the situation on the ground “unprecedented.” In an interview with Al Jazeera reporter Stefanie Dekker on the dais, Philippe Lazzarini, commissioner-general of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, said his own organization is “on the brink of collapse.” They have lost 134 relief workers in Gaza since Israeli operations began. He described staff in silent stupefaction over the loss of homes, families. “There is no doubt a ceasefire is needed; we want to put an end to hell on earth right now in Gaza.”
Khaled Saffuri, executive director of the National Interest Foundation in Washington, told RS he was struck by the backlash against American brands in his own travels in Kuwait and Qatar over the last week, citing customer and restaurant boycotts of Coke, Pepsi, MacDonald’s, and Starbucks. “It’s horrible,” he said of the lopsided UN vote. “America is losing a lot in the Muslim world.”
Dear RS readers: It has been an extraordinary year and our editing team has been working overtime to make sure that we are covering the current conflicts with quality, fresh analysis that doesn’t cleave to the mainstream orthodoxy or take official Washington and the commentariat at face value. Our staff reporters, experts, and outside writers offer top-notch, independent work, daily. Please consider making a tax-exempt, year-end contribution to Responsible Statecraft so that we can continue this quality coverage — which you will find nowhere else — into 2024. Happy Holidays!
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Journalists in the press room watch as Republican presidential candidate and former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and fellow candidate and businessman Vivek Ramaswamy discuss an issue during the fourth Republican candidates' debate of the 2024 U.S. presidential campaign hosted by NewsNation at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, U.S., December 6, 2023. REUTERS/Alyssa Pointer
It's as if the Ukraine War has all but ended — at least for American politics.
If the Republican debates had occurred last year, they would have been consumed with talk over whether Vladimir Putin was readying to roll across Europe and how weak President Biden was for not giving Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky our best tanks, our most powerful fighter aircraft, the longest range missiles we had — maybe even access to nukes.
But Zelensky wasn’t anywhere near the debate stage in Alabama last night, his name not even invoked. Fitting, we guess, since the Senate failed to pass an aid package yesterday that would have sent another $60 billion to Ukraine. This, despite administration claims that the war effort is literally running out of money. Biden even took to the airwaves Wednesday to warn of a NATO war if the funding wasn’t approved.
Republicans have been souring on the aid for months now, which might account for Ukraine’s diminished importance in the conversation. It was outweighed last night by the conflict in Israel, which in itself only drew three questions: Do we send in special forces to get the eight remaining American hostages back from Hamas? What kind of punishment could be slapped on university presidents who allow “pro Hamas” protests on campus? And how do we “get” Iran for purportedly being behind it all?
Ukraine was wielded, albeit briefly, as a blunt instrument. At the very least it gave us the tiniest of glimpses into the competing world views of the hawks on the dais (Chris Christie and Nikki Haley) and their chief agitant, Vivek Ramaswamy.
Haley raised the issue (without being asked about it) by fitting it into her usual stream of Domino Theory conciousness:
“The problem is, you have to see that all of these are related. If you look at the fact Russia was losing that war with Ukraine, Putin had hit rock bottom, they had raised the draft age to 65. He was getting drones and missiles — drones from Iran, missiles from North Korea. And so what happened when he hit rock bottom, all of a sudden his other friend, Iran, Hamas goes and invades Israel and butchers those people on Putin's birthday. There is no one happier right now than Putin because all of the attention America had on Ukraine suddenly went to Israel. And that's what they were hoping is going to happen. We need to make sure that we have full clarity, that there is a reason again that Taiwanese want to help Ukrainians because they know if Ukraine wins China won't invade Taiwan. There's a reason the Ukrainians want to help Israelis because they know that if Iran wins, Russia wins. These are all connected. But what wins all of that is a strong America, not a weak America. And that's what Joe Biden has given us.”
Vivek Ramaswamy responds:
“I want to say one thing about that tie to Ukraine. Foreign policy experience is not the same as foreign policy wisdom. I was the first person to say we need a reasonable peace deal in Ukraine. Now a lot of the neocons are quietly coming along to that position with the exceptions of Nikki Haley and Joe Biden, who still support this, what I believe, is pointless war in Ukraine. …One thing that Joe Biden and Nikki Haley have in common is that neither of them could even state for you three provinces in eastern Ukraine that they want to send our troops to actually fight for. … So reject this myth that they've been selling you that somebody had a cup of coffee stint at the UN and then makes eight million bucks after has real foreign policy experience. It takes an outsider to see this through.”
To which Chris Christie retorted:
“Let me just say something here, you know, his (Ramaswamy’s) reasonable peace deal in Ukraine. He made it clear. Give them all the land they've already stolen. Promise Putin you'll never put Ukraine in Russia, and then trust Putin not to have a relationship with China.” (Christie then essentially calls Ramaswamy a liar for suggesting he never said that.)
"These people are lying. These are the same people who told you about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq to justify that invasion didn't know the first thing about it if they send thousands of our sons and daughters to go die. The same people who told you the same in Afghanistan, where the Taliban is still in charge. Twenty years later, seven trillion of our national debt due to these toxic neocons. You can put lipstick on a Dick Cheney, it is still a fascist neocon today."
That was basically it. After $130 billion in U.S. taxpayer money since 2022, most of which we are being told has been spent in Ukraine. After hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians and Russians dead and maimed, Ukraine’s economy in such a state that the West has to prop it up, and NATO pledging more troops and weapons it doesn’t even seem to have, the issue was afforded a scant few minutes, and used only in the broadest of ways to pound each other. Gone was even the ghost of the old argument that the free world was at stake or that our obligation to Ukrainians was a moral imperative. It’s been reduced to a political cudgel, which is the first step to being memory holed in Washington. It happened to Iraq and Afghanistan in prior president debates 2012 and 2016.
The gist seems to be, maybe if we ignore it, it will just go away?
Discussions of Pentagon spending in Washington routinely ignore the fact that at $886 billion for next year, the military budget is already at one of the highest levels since World War II. With better management and a more realistic strategy, that sum would be far more than is needed to provide an effective defense of the United States and its allies.
Unfortunately, the Pentagon, the arms industry, and their allies in Congress have failed to make a careful assessment of America’s defense needs. Instead, they’re pushing an ill-considered plan to supersize the weapons production base at the expense of other urgent national needs.
The main argument used by Pentagon budget boosters is that the United States is in danger of falling behind China in developing and deploying next-generation systems, like unpiloted vehicles controlled by artificial intelligence. This approach would also include taxpayer subsidies for the building of new weapons factories, which could lead to a permanent expansion of the arms sector. Doing all of this could push the Pentagon budget well over $1 trillion in the next few years, a huge and unnecessary spending binge that would further militarize our economy at the expense of investments in addressing major challenges like climate change and outbreaks of disease.
Deputy Secretary of Defense Kathleen Hicks unveiled the Pentagon’s new approach in a speech to the National Defense Industrial Association in August of this year:
“To stay ahead [of China], we’re going to create a new state of the art… leveraging attritable, autonomous systems in all domains which are less expensive, put fewer people at risk, and can be changed, upgraded, or improved with substantially shorter lead times," she said. "We’ll counter the PLA’s [People’s Liberation Army’s] with mass of our own, but ours will be harder to plan for, harder to hit, and harder to beat.”
Building new systems, based on complex new technologies, able to be produced in large numbers in short order would be a daunting task. It would run counter to the record of the Pentagon and the arms industry over the past five decades, which is rife with examples of cost overruns and schedule delays. The Pentagon’s dream of new high-tech systems that are affordable and quick to produce is unlikely to be fulfilled.
A forthcoming reportfrom the Pentagon on the nation’s “defense industrial strategy” suggests that the solution is to fund smaller, more nimble arms firms, because “the traditional defense contractors in the [defense industrial base] would be challenged to respond to modern conflict at the velocity, scale, and flexibility necessary to meet the dynamic requirements of a major modern conflict.”
Regardless of who takes up the challenge of building next generation systems, the notion that new technology can solve the array of security challenges facing America is a dubious proposition. Every generation brings hopes of a new, miracle technological fix that will allegedly dramatically increase U.S. military capabilities. From the “electronic battlefield” in Vietnam to the “revolution in military affairs” that was touted in the 1990s, this approach has produced some systems that are more accurate and better networked.
But the existence of this technology has not enabled the United States to actually win wars — in Vietnam, Iraq, or Afghanistan. That’s because technology cannot overcome a determined adversary engaged in irregular warfare on its home turf, and that the goal of reshaping entire societies by force was wildly unrealistic in the first place. The idea that emerging technologies will do any better and increase the ability to “win” a war with China is misguided at best. War with China would be an unprecedented disaster for all concerned, and the goal of U.S. policy should be to prevent such a conflict, not spin out scenarios for “winning” a war against a nuclear-armed power.
In addition, contrary to the claims of the Pentagon and the arms industry, China’s military is not 10 feet tall, nor is its arms industry. As I note in a new paper for the Brown University Costs of War project, however one chooses to measure it, the U.S. spends two to three times what China spends on its military. The U.S. also has large advantages in numbers of basic systems, including nuclear weapons, aircraft carriers, advanced combat aircraft, nuclear-powered submarines, and transport aircraft.
In fact, as Dan Grazier of the Project on Government Oversight has noted, China’s military strategy is “inherently defensive.” When it comes to emerging military technology, the relative strengths of the U.S. and China are harder to assess given a lack of transparency on research into these areas. But the best course is not to run an arms race with China in the development of AI-driven robotic weapons. As Michael Klare has noted in a report for the Arms Control Association, there are real concerns that “AI-enabled systems may fail in unpredictable ways, causing unintended human slaughter or uncontrolled escalation.”
The best hope of fending off a war between the U.S. and China over Taiwan rests with smart diplomacy, not “smart” weaponry. A good start would be to revive the “One China” policy, which calls, among other things, for China to commit itself to a peaceful resolution of the question of Taiwan’s status, and for the U.S. to forswear support for Taiwan’s formal independence and maintain only informal relations with the Taiwanese government.That approach has kept the peace in the Taiwan Strait for five decades.
There is no good reason to expand the U.S. arms production base to accelerate the development of dangerous, next generation weapons systems. But unless Congress and the public act soon to rein in these efforts, we may soon enter a brave new world that will make the current security landscape look benign by comparison.