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Captured by the Captive Nations Lobby

The Biden administration’s Ukraine policy is being influenced by a powerful foreign lobby.

Usa,And,Ukraine,Flags,Painted,On,Concrete,Wall
(Photo Veterok/Shutterstock)

What explains the Biden administration’s commitment to the war in Ukraine? It can’t be popular support.

A recent poll by Morning Consult showed few Americans believe the U.S. is insufficiently supportive of Ukraine. According to its findings, “Just 20% of U.S. voters say their country isn’t doing enough to halt Russia’s invasion.” Another poll, by Data for Progress on behalf of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, found that only “six percent said Russia’s war in Ukraine is among the top three most important issues facing the United States today.”

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Yet the president’s policy appears to be to give the Ukrainians nearly everything they want, so they can either defeat Russia outright or negotiate a favorable peace from a position of strength. Whatever one thinks of that policy, it cannot be explained by the hard calculus of U.S. national interest—after all, we have few discernible interests in that country. So how did the future of Ukraine come to loom so large in American politics?

Part of the answer, of course, has to do with Russia, and Russia’s ongoing occupation of parts and eastern and southern Ukraine. But the special pleading of a specific U.S. lobby has also played a significant role in shaping the administration’s response to Putin’s February invasion.

It is no secret that since the end of the Second World War, foreign lobbies have exerted an outsized influence on the foreign policy of this country. Influential lobbies working on behalf of the interests of the Israelis, Taiwanese, Cubans, Tibetans, Uyghurs, as well as groups of expatriate Syrians, Iraqis, and many others besides, have from time to time shaped the direction of U.S. foreign policy. 

Today, the Biden administration’s Ukraine policy is being heavily influenced by the Cold War-era Captive Nations Lobby (CNL). Broadly speaking, the CNL consists of emigres from former Soviet states and those nations of east-central Europe that fell under Soviet hegemony during the Cold War, including immigrants and their descendants from the Balts, Belarus, Moldova, Poland, Ukraine, and parts of western Russia.

On July 17, 1959, U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower officially recognized the CNL in a declaration that designated the third week of every July as “Captive Nations Week” until “such time as freedom and independence shall have been achieved for all the captive nations of the world.”

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Thirty years after the end of the Cold War, President Obama’s Captive Nations Week declaration of July 2010 said, in part, that “The journey towards worldwide freedom and democracy sought in 1959 remains unfinished.… The United States has a special responsibility to bear witness to those whose voices are silenced, and to stand alongside those who yearn to exercise their universal human rights.”

One of the biggest victories secured by the CNL in the post-Cold War era came courtesy of President Bill Clinton, whose decision to enlarge NATO was calculated to appeal to voters of Polish and Ukrainian descent in the American Rust Belt. According to Jack F. Matlock, who served as President Reagan’s ambassador to the Soviet Union:

The real reason that Clinton went for it [NATO expansion] was domestic politics. I testified in Congress against NATO expansion, saying that it would be a great mistake, and that if it continued, that certainly it would have to stop before it reached countries like Ukraine and Georgia, that this would be unacceptable to any Russian government, and that furthermore, that the expansion of NATO would undermine any chance for the development of democracy in Russia.

Matlock continued:

But why, when I came out of that testimony, a couple of people who were observing said, "Jack, why are you fighting against this?" And I said, "Because I think it's a bad idea." They said, "Look, Clinton wants to get reelected. He needs Pennsylvania, Michigan, Illinois; they all have a very strong East European..." Many of these had become Reagan Democrats on East- West issues. They're insisting that the Ukraine [NATO] expand to include Poland and eventually Ukraine. So, Clinton needs those to get reelected.

It would be easy, but it would also be a mistake, to accuse the members of the CNL of having “dual loyalties.” The situation is more subtle than that. Put delicately, the most prominent members of the CNL have what might be called “extra-American” concerns. Many prominent lobby members were born and raised in the U.S., but some served as officials in foreign governments or are connected through marriage to foreign officials. Some are connected by bonds of ethnicity, and others are native-born Russians who are liberal opponents of the Putin regime. 

The lobby consists of foreign-funded think tanks with close ties to Eastern and Central Europe, a number of which have been directly consulted by the White House during the crisis. The CNL has, as other lobbies do, wide support in the media and the academy. And it is true, as with other well-known, well-funded, and well-organized foreign lobbies in Washington, that it is the CNL’s right to advocate for their position as forcefully as the law will allow. 

But the Biden administration would be showing a grave lack of discernment should it view the recommendations of the CNL as either without bias or strictly in the U.S. national interest.

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