As Koch Industries continues business in Russia, Koch-backed groups oppose sanctions
On Monday, Popular Information revealed that Koch Industries, the conglomerate run by right-wing billionaire Charles Koch, was continuing to operate in Russia through three wholly-owned subsidiaries. Since then, the story has been picked up by the New York Times, CBS News, Newsweek, Marketwatch, Daily Beast, and other outlets. Nevertheless, Koch Industries has still not made a statement acknowledging — much less defending — its conduct.
But there are people arguing that American businesses like Koch Industries should continue to do business in Russia, even as it targets civilians in Ukraine. An investigation by Popular Information has uncovered a network of pundits and groups publicly arguing against the imposition of economic sanctions on Russia. What often goes unmentioned is that many of these individuals and organizations receive funding from Charles Koch.
Stand Together is an umbrella non-profit organization founded by Charles Koch. It supplies funding to a slew of other groups to advance Koch's public policy vision.
Dan Caldwell is the vice president for foreign policy at Stand Together. In a series of tweets on Monday, Caldwell said that the "Stand Together community" — groups funded by Koch — opposes "broad-based economic sanctions" against Russia.
Caldwell goes on to argue that "the overly-aggressive use of sanctions actually strengthens… authoritarian regimes" and "threatens American financial dominance." He previously suggested the United States, in response to Russia's invasion of Ukraine, should remain neutral.
Caldwell does not disclose that his position supports the business interests of his boss, Charles Koch. It's an issue that plagues numerous other members of the "Stand Together community" making similar arguments.
American Institute for Economic Research
The American Institute for Economic Research (AIER) is tightly linked to Charles Koch and his network of public policy institutions. AIER received $68,100 in 2018 and $34,650 in 2019 from the Charles Koch Foundation, according to tax filings. (Donations from the foundation after 2019 have not yet been disclosed.) But its links to Charles Koch run far deeper.
On January 24, 2022, Will Ruger became the president of AIER. Prior to assuming his position at AIER, Ruger "spent the past eight years as Vice President for Research and Policy at the Charles Koch Institute, and Vice President for Foreign Policy at Stand Together." During that time, he also was on the staff of the Charles Koch Foundation.
In his new role, as president of AIER, Ruger has been a leading voice against imposing economic sanctions against Russia. Ruger was a guest on a March 2 podcast with Reason Magazine, a libertarian publication that itself receives funding from Charles Koch.
"The United States can and should do very little for Ukraine," Ruger said. "Ukraine simply doesn't matter to America's security or our prosperity." On the issue of sanctions, Ruger suggested that they make it "much harder for actually for Russia to stand down" because Putin does not want "to appear to cry uncle to this pressure."
Ruger also promoted a Reason video called "Why Russian sanctions will fail."
Several AIER board members are linked to Charles Koch. AIER board member Benjamin Powell, for example, runs the Free Market Institute, a libertarian institution housed at Texas Tech and "largely bankrolled by the Koch network and other conservative interests and individuals."
A March 8 column published by AIER criticizes companies that "have fled the Russian market, exiting partnerships and investments." It argues that suspending economic activity in Russia only hurts the Russian people "with minimal effect on government misbehavior." It calls broad-based sanctions on Russia "grotesquely immoral." The column was written by Doug Bandow, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute, another organization that receives significant funding from Charles Koch. After Russia's invasion of Crimea in 2015, Bandow reportedly called Ukraine a "fake country" and said that "[t]here's nothing at stake" for the United States.
In response to request for comment, AIER sent the following statement:
AIER is not a current recipient of funding from the Charles Koch Foundation or any other entity that is part of the Stand Together community. We previously received a grant from the Koch Foundation in 2018 that sponsored a regional academic conference on economics. All funds from this grant were used at the time of the conference.
AIER did not address the discrepancy between the statement and the Charles Koch Foundation's public filings, which show a second donation in 2019. Both the 2018 and the 2019 donation were designated to support "General Operations."
Defense Priorities is another think tank filled with associates of the Koch network. Among those who backed the creation of the think tank include Ruger, Bandow, and former “vice president for defense and foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute” Christopher Preble.
Defense Priorities was founded in 2015 as a think tank that informs “citizens, thought leaders, and policymakers of the importance of a strong, dynamic military.” The think tank also includes the Defense Priorities Initiative, which “is designed as the organization’s advocacy arm, which will seek to lobby Congress.”
According to Politico, “[a] spokesperson for the Charles Koch Institute” said that “the institute and the Charles Koch foundation are not providing financial support to the new think tank[,] but ‘have a great interest in foreign policy and its impact on our country’s well-being.’” Despite this, Freedom Partners, a nonprofit organization that was “spearheaded” by Charles Koch and rebranded as Stand Together in 2019, provided the Defense Priorities Initiative with a $100,000 grant for “general support” in 2017.
Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Defense Priorities has published multiple articles that have expressed skepticism about the utility of sanctions. “The West loves to wield sanctions to solve any international problem,” Defense Priorities said in an article published February 22. “That hasn’t deterred Putin since 2014 with Ukraine and it won’t work now.”
In an article entitled “Sanctions should be tied to strategy” published February 24, Defense Priorities argued that while “[t]here is no doubt U.S. economic sanctions can be a powerful tool[,]” history “demonstrates sanctions rarely result in the policy concessions that the U.S. is seeking.” The article says that, in many cases, economic sanctions are “merely an exercise in virtue signaling.” The author of the piece, Daniel DePetris, supported Caldwell’s remarks on the “Stand Together [community’s]” opposition to “broad-based economic sanctions” on Twitter.
Richard Hanania, one of Defense Priorities’ fellows, has also been outspoken about opposing sanctions. “‘Russia becomes more repressive and crazy’ in response to pressure was always more likely than ‘Russia decides to call the war a failure and give up.’ This is the norm with sanctions. If policy was about having a positive effect instead of looking ‘tough’ people would understand,” Hanania tweeted on March 3.
On February 28, Hanania, who has also commented that sanctions “don’t work in general,” said: “‘Sanction them hard enough and the regime will collapse’ has failed in Iraq, Syria, Iran, Cuba, North Korea, etc. Russia is much more powerful than any of those countries. Why would it work here? Most likely scenario is increasing escalation until victory or negotiated settlement.”
Defense Priorities did not respond to Popular Information’s request for comment.
Concerned Veterans for America
Concerned Veterans for America (CVA) is another Koch-backed effort pushing anti-sanction content. According to the Washington Post, the group was “formed in 2011 as a nonprofit group named Vets for Economic Freedom Trust, and was seeded with nearly $2 million from Koch network donors.” Between 2012 and 2016, the Freedom Partners provided CVA “$44,580,000 in funding.” The Washington Post also reported that in 2012, CVA was funded almost entirely by TC4, another non-profit with “ties to the Koch network.” According to the Center for Media and Democracy’s SourceWatch, CVA “appears to have received the vast majority of its revenues from Koch network funding vehicles.”
CVA also has ties to many other Koch-funded organizations. Caldwell is CVA’s former executive director and current senior advisor. He has acted as a spokesperson for a coalition involving both CVA and Stand Together to create “a better foreign policy – one that empowers veterans, ensures our security, and protects our national future.” The coalition claims, “There has been record movement toward a better foreign policy in recent years. Stand Together and our partners have played a leading role.”
CVA is now advertising a letter that urges “Officials” to “exercise and encourage restraint as America responds to Russia’s immoral invasion of Ukraine.” The letter states, “Increasing sanctions… can unnecessarily risk pulling the U.S. into direct confrontation with Russia.” The letter goes on to say, “The United States has no vital interests at stake in Ukraine … I urge you to do everything in your power to foster diplomacy and peace.”
CVA did not respond to a request for comment.
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