Ukraine far outperforms Russia — on the lobbying front, in Washington
Long before Vladimir Putin’s disastrous invasion began, Ukrainian and Russian forces had been waging a furious battle over a coveted prize. But, this fight didn’t take place on any battlefield, it was waged in our nation’s capital and the combatants weren’t hardened soldiers, they were lobbyists hired by Russian and Ukrainian interests.
The prize they were fighting for was influence over U.S. foreign policy.
As chronicled in a brand new Quincy Institute brief by Research Fellow Ben Freeman, “The Lobbying Battle Before the War: Russian and Ukrainian Interests in the U.S.,” Russian interests spent $42 million on Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) registered firms, compared to a paltry $2 million by Ukrainian interests. While much of the Russian spending (around $38 million) was for Russian state media in the U.S., like RT, Russian interests still spent more than double what Ukrainian interests spent on traditional lobbying and public relations firms.
Aided immensely by former members of Congress working on their behalf, Russian banks and energy companies leveraged this advantage in an attempt to lobby against sanctions and for the Nordstream 2 pipeline. Even right up until the invasion of Ukraine, former Senator David Vitter (R-LA) and former Representative Toby Moffett (D-CT) of Mercury Public Affairs lobbied on behalf of the Russian bank Sovcombank, with Vitter insisting that Russia’s ninth-largest bank would be an “extremely counterproductive sanctions target.” This strategy seemingly worked for Russian interests before, so there was reason to believe it could work again.
But, while the Ukraine lobby might have been small in terms of spending, it was most certainly mighty and, above all, extraordinarily zealous. The paltry financial investment made by Ukrainian interests led to an astounding 13,541 political contacts on behalf of Ukrainian clients in 2021, a feat that far surpasses even the most active lobbies in Washington.
The biggest clash between the two lobbies revolved around the issue of Nord Stream 2. Russian firms representing the pipeline company Nord Stream AG were led by Roberti Global in an attempt to block “potential financial sanctions affecting the project.” Roberti Global — described by GQ Magazine as the “Hollywood ideal of a Washington power broker” — had some successes, including pushing for the Biden Administration’s decision to lift sanctions on the pipeline in May of 2021.
But, the pro-Ukraine lobby was not about to back down. May 21, the day after Biden waived sanctions related to Nord Stream 2, was the single-busiest day in Congressional outreach by the pro-Ukraine lobby. Four separate lobbying and public relations firms representing the Ukrainian Federation of Employers of the Oil and Gas Industry (UFEOGI) worked overtime to effectively make halting the Nord Stream 2 pipeline synonymous with Ukrainian national security. These firms, spearheaded by Yorktown Solutions, contacted Congressional offices, think tanks, media outlets, and government agencies like the State Department and Department of Energy to discuss “U.S.-Ukraine Energy Issues” over 12,000 times. In one, Yorktown Solutions warned that a failure to impose sanctions on Nord Stream 2 “rewards Russia for its military hostility.”
Firms representing Nord Stream AG nearly doubled their spending in the first quarter of 2022, but even this proved insufficient. When Russia invaded Ukraine, the pipeline was quickly sanctioned by the Biden Administration. One by one, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine became the death knell for Russia’s lobbying objectives and a boon for Ukraine’s.
Military support, another key objective of the pro-Ukraine lobby, ballooned after Russia’s invasion. Since the start of the war, Ukraine has secured more than $50 billion in U.S. economic and military support and every weapon on their wishlist, including thousands of anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles as well as armored vehicles, drones, helicopters, howitzers, anti-artillery rocket systems, and small arms and ammunition. One Wall Street Journal article written by former ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul and distributed by Yorktown, argues that Biden should “announce major new military assistance” including “anti-tank Javelins as well as upgraded radars.”
Think tanks played a central role in the pro-Ukraine lobby’s push for U.S. military support, with nearly six hundred reported contacts with the Atlantic Council alone. In one piece for their “UkraineAlert” series, the Atlantic Council released a survey titled “Western public backs stronger support for Ukraine against Russia.” The survey in question was commissioned by the Victor Pinchuk Foundation and Yalta European Strategy, but fails to mention that the foundation contributes $250,000 to 499,000 a year to the Atlantic Council, or that Pinchuk himself — the second wealthiest man in Ukraine — is on the international advisory board of the Atlantic Council. The pro-Ukraine lobby stopped short of getting a no-fly zone, a position advocated by several experts at the Atlantic Council including John Herbst, Senior Director at the Eurasia Center.
Today, the pro-Ukraine lobby has expanded to more than double the amount of registrants it had in 2021. In a stunning turn of events, some of the lobbying and public relations firms that previously represented Russian interests began to work for Ukrainian clients, even working on a pro-bono basis. Mercury Public Affairs, the same firm that represented a Russian bank right up until the invasion, is now cleansing its public image by doing gratis lobbying for Globee International Agency for Regional Development for Ukraine.
While Putin’s disastrous decision to invade Ukraine effectively ended the Nord Stream 2 pipeline and led to historic increases in U.S. military support for the Ukrainian military, this new Quincy Institute brief shows that these outcomes were anything but inevitable. They were at the heart of a fevered battle between lobbying, public relations, and other firms working for Russian and Ukrainian interests. While Russian interests flexed their juggernaut lobbying operation in the hopes of preventing sanctions from being levied, it was Ukraine’s small, yet powerful lobby that won the day.