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Ukraine’s Relentless Lobbyists Take to Congress

How a few Washington firms are seeking to put the U.S. on collision course with Russia.

As tensions continue to escalate between Russia and Ukraine, the Ukrainian government’s actors in Washington have kicked their influence efforts into overdrive.

New analysis from the Quincy Institute’s Ben Freeman found the Ukrainian government hired just under a dozen firms registered under the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA), shelling out about $2 million last year to firms who lobbied on their behalf. Freeman described the Ukrainian lobby as “small but mighty” in a phone interview with The American Conservative, and said their efforts to influence Washington and America’s political apparatus are intense relative to their modest budget.

While Ukraine’s lobbyists have primarily focused on the Nord Stream 2 pipeline given Russia’s buildup along the Ukrainian borders, they have also spent time on Ukrainian security issues and promoting support for Ukraine’s political system. The completion of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline would allow Russia to export natural gas directly to the core of Europe via Germany. The pipeline would cut out Ukrainian middlemen, who would continue to rake in hundreds of millions of dollars annually in energy-transit fees if the pipeline’s completion were prevented. In the beginning of his tenure, Biden waived sanctions against Nord Stream 2 construction.

FARA disclosures show Yorktown Solutions, one of the lobbying firms hired by the Ukrainian government to work behind the scenes, received nearly $1 million from the Ukraine Federation of the Employers of the Oil and Gas Industry (UFEOGI) between Dec. 1, 2020 and Nov. 30, 2021. UFEOGI members include the state-owned Naftogaz and several other joint-stock and subsidiary energy enterprises. In that same period of time, UFEOGI’s Yorktown lobbyists made more than 11,000 connections—meetings, emails, and phone calls—with representatives in government (from Congress to the State Department and the National Security Council), think tanks (such as the Atlantic Council and the Heritage Foundation), and media outlets (like Foreign Policy, the Wall Street Journal, Bloomberg, and NBC News). Freeman told TAC he’s “never seen something so expansive” as Yorktown’s efforts in his decade-plus of analyzing FARA disclosures.

Yorktown’s FARA reporting shows that its lobbyists met with Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and at least two of his staffers, national security advisor Omri Ceren and senior legislative assistant Samantha Leahy, on July 20, 2021. Yorktown’s president and signatory of the firm’s FARA disclosures, Daniel Vajdich, served on Cruz’s 2016 presidential campaign as the senior national security advisor and chairman of the Russia working group.

In light of recent developments near the Ukrainian border, Cruz introduced a bill to reinstate sanctions on the construction of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline.

When Cruz’s bill started heading for a vote on the Senate floor, Yorktown sent a brief titled “Nord Stream 2 pipeline–Facts on the Ground,” according to Politico’s national security newsletter on Jan. 12. Vajdich told Politico the brief had been emailed to about half of the Senate’s Republican caucus, and nearly every Democratic member.

A subsequent edition of Politico’s National Security Daily, dated Jan. 21, featured Ceren in its “Drinks with Natsec Daily” section. “When he’s not working with his boss to reimpose sanctions on Nord Stream 2, you can find Ceren on the patio at Morton’s Steakhouse drinking a vodka soda. In a pinch, or simply to hydrate, Ceren will take a Diet Coke, but that’s clearly not his preferred option,” the Lockheed Martin-sponsored newsletter read. “Cheers, Omri!” it added.

While Cruz was able to negotiate with Democratic leaders in the Senate to bring the bill to a vote, the legislation ultimately failed to garner the 60 votes needed to overcome the Senate filibuster. The vote tally was 55 in favor, 44 against. Prior to the vote, the bill was already expected to fail given the Senate’s partisan divisions.

Though they were unable to get Cruz’s bill across the line, UFEOGI’s efforts in Washington continue apace. On July 16, 2021, UFEOGI signed a new contract with the lobbying firm Arent Fox worth $1.26 million to lobby on behalf of Nord Stream 2 sanctions, among other Ukrainian energy issues. FARA documents show Arent Fox was prepaid $315,000 “for legal advisory services,” though the contract was severed just over three months after its signing.

Freeman speculated to TAC that Arent Fox was not meeting UFEOGI’s expectations, given the number of FARA-disclosed contacts made by other firms lobbying on behalf of Ukraine, like Yorktown Solution’s hundreds of pages of contacts, in comparison to Arent Fox, which reported merely ten contacts over the three month period.  It appears, then, that UFEOGI gave Arent Fox at least $30,000 for each political connection the firm made on its behalf.

But the unfruitful relationship between UFEOGI and Arent Fox, Freeman told TAC, is atypical for the Ukraine lobby. “I’m not exactly sure how the Ukrainians are getting such a good bang for their buck when it comes to hiring these lobbyists, but whatever they’re doing it’s working because these foreign agents are just working overtime for Ukrainian interests,” he said.

Another lobbying firm, Karv Communications, received nearly $120,000 from UFEOGI between July 9, 2021, the day the two entered into contract, through Oct. 31, 2021. The focus of Karv Communications’ outreach efforts, according to FARA disclosures, was to reach out to prominent news outlets—the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, CNN, and many more—to interview members of UFEOGI leadership, place opinion pieces, and discuss Ukrainian energy policies.

Since shedding light on foreign lobbyists’ activities may curb their influence, Freeman said lobbyists’ “goal is the opposite of that. They know that they can have the greatest success for their clients the less the public is aware of what’s going on with these issues, and the less the media is writing stories about what they’re doing.” Freeman plans on releasing a full report outlining the extent of Ukraine’s lobbying efforts later this spring.

Though Ukraine’s lobbying force is rather small compared to those of major lobbying nations like Japan, South Korea, and Saudi Arabia, the Ukrainian lobby is a good reminder that foreign governments and their agents devote vast amounts of time and money to influence the making of the sausage in Washington. Narratives are massaged, tested by focus groups, and massaged some more. Policies are packaged and pushed through Congress (sometimes unsuccessfully) and shipped overnight in print to Americans’ doorsteps. Unpalatable positions, like a hot war with Russia over Ukraine, are force-fed to the public via social media or cable news. Best not to take a bite.