In spite of its immense danger, the campaign for a “no-fly zone” in Ukraine seems to be gaining momentum, with twenty-seven foreign policy luminaries signing a letter earlier this week calling on the Joe Biden administration to set up a “limited” one over the country, to protect the humanitarian corridors recently agreed to in Russia-Ukraine talks. The letter has already been widely cited in the press, giving the disastrous idea more legitimacy.
What you won’t be told about is the behind-the-scenes role of weapons manufacturers, fossil fuels, and certain oligarchs in promoting these views.
A no-fly zone is a deviously clever euphemism for war, involving the shooting down of Russian planes and destruction of Russian air defenses. As soon as US forces destroy a Russian aircraft, killing its pilot, it would turn Moscow’s invasion from a regional war to something closer to the scale of a world war — only this time involving stockpiles of hundreds and thousands of nuclear weapons, which didn’t exist when Adolf Hitler invaded Poland. Even a hawk like Marco Rubio says as much in opposing the idea.
Given this outcome, it’s perhaps not surprising that numerous names on the letter are either financially intertwined with the defense industry or work for organizations funded by it.
Ian Brzezinski had a five-year stint as a principal in Booz Allen Hamilton, a Pentagon contractor, before going to lead the Brzezinski Group, described as “a strategic advisory firm serving U.S. and international commercial clients in the financial, energy, and defense sectors.” John Kornblum is a senior advisor at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a think tank that counts Northrop Grumman as one of its two largest corporate donors and that also receives donations from firms like General Atomics, Lockheed Martin, and Boeing.
Both Ben Hodges and Kurt Volker are part of the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA), a think tank that in 2021 counted defense firms BAE Systems, General Dynamics, General Atomics, and Lockheed among its list of contributors. Volker is also the international managing director for and cochair of the advisory board to BGR Group, which “represents major defense and aerospace companies, aerospace suppliers, government service providers, non-profit organizations, and states and municipalities that have an interest in U.S. defense policy.”
Philip Breedlove serves on the board of advisors of the Center for a New American Security (CNAS), a hawkish liberal think tank that has been used to staff Democratic administrations, including this one. Besides the Pentagon, Northrop Grumman is CNAS’s top donor, with Raytheon, Palantir, BAE, Boeing, Booz Allen, Lockheed, and General Dynamics in lower tiers of contributors.
Evelyn Farkas, meanwhile, is a former Pentagon official and national security analyst who heads the somewhat mysterious Farkas Global Strategies, which describes itself vaguely as working for “strategic growth at some of the largest corporations around the world.” Farkas’s page describes her as “leveraging technology companies’ capabilities to improve key defense acquisition programs,” and lists “operational resilience, risk mitigation, cybersecurity, [and] critical infrastructure protection” as some of her expertise, possibly hinting at the kind of work the firm does.
Farkas is also on the board of directors of the Project 2049 Institute, which pushes for a more confrontational stance toward China and upping military sales to Asian countries in tension with it. While it no longer displays its donors, an archived page lists several of the weapons manufacturers named previously, as well as private military contractor DynCorp (later bought by Amentum), defense firm Science Applications International Corporation (SAIC), and SBD Advisors, which “focuses on identifying and connecting private sector innovation to meet national security challenges.”
It’s an important reminder of the way that, in Washington, foreign policy and private financial interests tend to conveniently overlap. Lockheed and Raytheon executives had lamented the impact on their bottom line of the US withdrawal from Afghanistan last year, and they and General Dynamics had celebrated the business opportunities coming from the current and entirely avoidable geopolitical tensions with China. In January of this year, they were positively salivating over the rising tensions over Ukraine, and there’s now talk of rebranding weapons-manufacturer stocks as “socially responsible” investments in light of Russian president Vladimir Putin’s invasion.
This is how the modern version of the military-industrial complex that President Dwight Eisenhower talked about works. Certain companies have a vested interest in war and conflict; they lavishly pay and promote voices that favor policies that would create more of it; those voices cycle through government positions, corporate-funded think tanks, and their own business ventures trading off that experience, raising their prominence further; so when the opportunity for more war comes, there is always a bench of high-profile, credentialed hawks instinctually ready to make the public case for more war.
Ten of the signatories hold various positions at the Atlantic Council, a hawkish think tank funded by a cornucopia of business interests, while another was a senior fellow there for six years. The Atlantic Council has its share of military-industry donors, as well as various NATO governments and NATO itself, but two other sources are of special interest: System Capital Management (SCM) and the Victor Pinchuk Foundation.
Pinchuk and Rinat Akhmetov, the head of SCM, are two of the richest men in Ukraine. Some of the country’s oligarchs, including Akhmetov, had initially fled the country when Moscow’s invasion began but soon returned to rally together against the war, in spite of preexisting conflicts and tensions with Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky. According to Forbes, the value of the oligarchs’ assets had fallen sharply in the separatist-controlled regions and around the country in the lead-up to the war.
“They realized that Putin presents a clear threat to all of Ukraine, and their assets as well,” Ukrainian analyst Taras Berezovets told Forbes. He added that Akhmetov’s assets are especially in danger, since “the majority of his factories and assets are located in Mariupol and Dnipro.” It’s important to note Akhmetov has significant business interests in Russia, too.
Pinchuk, meanwhile, has been a major donor to the Atlantic Council for years and sits on its international advisory board. It is just one of many pro-Western and pro-NATO initiatives Pinchuk has funded over the years. He also recently commissioned a survey backing greater support for Ukraine against Russia and in the lead-up to war had “hosted a lot of off-record meetings with Western officials to persuade them to get more assistance to Ukraine,” Berezovets told Forbes. (Pinchuk is also a donor to CEPA).
Besides the two oligarchs, there is another major business interest funding both the Atlantic Council and some of the other entities with whom the letter’s signatories are aligned: fossil fuel. Oil companies like Crescent Petroleum, Abu Dhabi National Oil Company, Chevron, Mubadala Petroleum, and Exxon litter the list of its donors, along with the oil magnate–founded Charles Koch Institute.
War is big business for fossil fuel companies, with the Pentagon the world’s largest institutional consumer of petroleum. In a world that continues to drag its feet on transitioning to an energy source that won’t eventually kill us all, fighter planes, tanks, military vehicles, and the like overwhelmingly run on fossil fuels, as do the vehicles that transport tens of thousands of soldiers to fight in far-off countries. And that’s not even getting into the fossil fuels needed to manufacture all these things.
It’s no surprise, then, that CSIS also counts BP, Chevron, Exxon, and Saudi Aramco as major donors. The McCain Institute, where signatory Claire Sechler Merkel is senior director of Arizona programs, has among its donors Chevron, MEG Energy, and BP, as well as the Saudi embassy and Raytheon. CNAS counts BP, Exxon, and the Charles Koch Institute among its contributors.
Meanwhile, the Atlantic Council, CEPA, and the Project 2049 Institute all also list the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) as a funder, while Daniel Fried, another signatory, sits on its board of directors.
The NED, a benign-sounding entity whose creator has said does the work that “was done covertly twenty-five years ago by the CIA,” has played an important role in the tit-for-tat game of political meddling between Russian and the United States this century, which has heightened tensions between the two countries. It was this back-and-forth that culminated in Moscow’s involvement in the 2016 US election, which was reportedly Putin’s revenge for the actions of entities like NED in Russia and elsewhere earlier that decade. The NED had a big part in stoking the 2014 Ukrainian revolution, for instance, which played an important role in the chain of events that led to this current war.
Finally, it’s worth noting that several of the signatories were directly involved in NATO policy that has sowed the seeds for this conflict. Brzezinski played a key role in expanding NATO under George W. Bush, while Barry Pavel led defense planning for the first round of NATO expansion under Bill Clinton. Alexander Vershbow, meanwhile, “was centrally involved” in “transforming NATO and other European security organizations to meet post-Cold War challenges” — in other words, transforming NATO from a defensive alliance to an offensive one fighting several wars that had nothing to do with defending Europe against foreign attack, a key part of why the Russian establishment, not just Putin, views the alliance as threatening.
Needless to say, the above isn’t a justification for Putin’s criminal and increasingly destructive war. Rather, these are points that have been made by numerous establishment foreign policy experts over the decades as underlying factors that led us to this point, the same way that the Treaty of Versailles, despite its authors’ intentions, laid the groundwork for World War II. So besides the financial interests involved here, there’s also the factor of individual judgment: some of the same people who helped bring us to this mess are now urging another potentially disastrous policy.
The only way to end this war without prolonging the suffering of Ukrainians or sparking global destruction is a political settlement between Russia, Ukraine, and the United States and the European Union. Unfortunately, that doesn’t sound nearly as sexy or viscerally satisfying as a shooting war, and it means a lot of wealthy, powerful people won’t be able to make a lot of money.