The shady arrangement between the Atlantic Council and Burisma – the gas company at the center of the ‘Ukrainegate’ scandal – is just one dubious deal out of many at a DC think tank that has become a clearinghouse for legal corruption.
By Max Blumenthal
With its relentless focus on corruption in Russia and Ukraine, the Atlantic Council has distinguished itself from other top-flight think tanks in Washington. Over the past several years, it has held innumerable conferences and panel discussions, issued a string of reports, and published literally hundreds of essays on Russia’s “kleptocracy” and the scourge of Kremlin disinformation.
At the same time, this institution has posed as a faithful partner to Ukraine’s imperiled democracy, organizing countless programs on the urgency of economic reforms to tamp down on corruption in the country.
But behind the curtain, the Atlantic Council has initiated a lucrative relationship with a corruption-tainted Ukrainian gas company, the Burisma Group, that is worth as much as $250,000 a year. The partnership has paid for lavish conferences in Monaco and helped bring Burisma’s oligarchic founder out of the cold.
This alliance has remained stable even as official Washington goes to war over allegations by President Donald Trump and his allies that former Vice President Joseph Biden fired a Ukrainian prosecutor to defend his son’s handsomely compensated position on Burisma’s board.
As Biden parries Trump’s accusations, some of the former vice president’s most ardent defenders are emerging from the halls of the Atlantic Council, which featured Biden as a star speaker at its awards ceremonies over the years. These advocates include Michael Carpenter, Biden’s longtime foreign policy advisor and specialist on Ukraine, who has taken to the national media to support his embattled boss.
Even as Burisma’s trail of influence-buying finds its way into front page headlines, the Atlantic Council’s partnership with the company is scarcely mentioned. Homing in on the partisan theater of “Ukrainegate” and tuning out the wider landscape of corruption, the Beltway press routinely runs quotes from Atlantic Council experts on the scandal without acknowledging their employer’s relationship with Hunter Biden’s former employer.
This case of obvious cronyism has not been overlooked because the Atlantic Council is a bit player, but because of its success in leveraging millions from foreign governments, the arms and energy industries, and Western-friendly oligarchs to bring its influence to bear in the nation’s capital.
Biden has been among the think tank’s most enthusiastic and well-placed allies.
In 2011, then-Vice President Biden delivered the keynote address at the Atlantic Council’s distinguished leadership awards. He returned to the think tank again in 2014 for another keynote at its “Toward A Europe Whole and Free” conference, which was dedicated to expanding NATO’s influence and countering “Russian aggression.” Throughout the event, speakers like Zbigniew Brzezinski sniped at Obama for his insufficiently bellicose posture toward Russia, while former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright fretted over polls showing low public support for US interventionism overseas.
In his own comments, Biden emphasized the need to power Europe with non-Russian sources of natural gas. This provided a prime opportunity to Ukrainian suppliers like Burisma and US energy titans. Many of these energy companies, from Chevron to Noble Energy, also happen to be top donors to the Atlantic Council.
“This would be a game-changer for Europe, in my view, and we’re ready to do everything in our power to help it happen,” Biden promised his audience.
At the time, the Atlantic Council was pushing to ramp up the proxy war against pro-Russian forces in Ukraine. In 2015, for instance, the think tank helped prepare a proposal for arming the Ukrainian military with offensive weaponry like Javelin anti-tank missiles.
Given that the Atlantic Council has been funded by the two manufacturers of the Javelin system, Raytheon and Lockheed Martin, this created at least the appearance of a conflict of interest. In fact, the think tank presented its Distinguished Business Leadership Award to Lockheed CEO Marillyn Hewson that same year.
Dubious arrangements like these are not limited to arms manufacturers. Anders Aslund, a neoliberal economist who helps oversee the Atlantic Council’s programming on Russia and Eastern Europe, was quietly paid by a consortium of Latvian banks to write an October 2017 paper highlighting the supposed progress they had made in battling corruption.
Aslund was asked to write the piece by Sally Painter, a longtime lobbyist for Latvian financial institutions who was appointed to the Atlantic Council board in 2017. At the time, one of those banks was seeking access to the US market and facing allegations that it had engaged in money laundering.
Pay-for-play collaborations have helped grow the Atlantic Council’s annual revenue grow from $2 million to over $20 million in the past decade. In almost every case, the think tank has churned out policy prescriptions that seem suited to its donors’ interests.
Government contributors to the Atlantic Council include Gulf monarchies, the US State Department, and various Turkish interests.
Among the think tank’s top individual contributors is Victor Pinchuk, one of the wealthiest people in Ukraine and a prolific donor to the Clinton Foundation. Pinchuk donated $8.6 million to the Clintons’ non-profit throughout Hillary Clinton’s tenure as secretary of state.
Asked if Pinchuk was lobbying the State Department on Ukraine, his personal foundation told the Wall Street Journal, “this cannot be seen as anything but a good thing.”
Obama’s “point-person” on Ukraine
In mainstream media reports about the Bidens, scarcely any attention is given to the critical role that Joe Biden and other Obama administration officials played in the 2013-2014 Maidan revolt that replaced a fairly elected, Russian-oriented government with a Western vassal. In a relatively sympathetic New Yorker profile of Hunter Biden, for example, the regime change operation was described by reporter Adam Entous as merely “public protests.”
During the height of the so-called “Revolution of Dignity” that played out in Kiev’s Maidan Square, then-Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland boasted that the US had “invested $5 billion” since 1991 into Ukrainian civil society. On a December 2013 tour of the Maidan, Nuland personally handed out cookies to protesters alongside then-US ambassador to Ukraine Geoffrey Pyatt.
In a phone conversation that leaked two months later, the two US diplomats could be heard plotting out the future government of the country, discussing Ukrainian politicians as though they were chess pieces. “I think Yats is the guy who’s got the economic experience,” Nuland said, essentially declaring Arseniy Yatsenyuk the next prime minister. Frustrated with the European Union’s reluctance to inflame tensions with Moscow, Nuland exclaimed, “Fuck the EU.”
By Feb. 2014, the Maidan revolt had succeeded in overthrowing Yanukovich with the help of far-right ultra-nationalist street muscle. With a new, US-approved government in power, Biden assumed a personal role in dictating Ukraine’s day-to-day affairs.
“No one in the U.S. government has wielded more influence over Ukraine than Vice President Joe Biden,” Foreign Policy noted. The Atlantic Council also described Biden as “the point person on Ukraine in the Obama administration.”
“Ukraine was the top, or one of the top three, foreign policy issues we were concentrating on,” said Carpenter, Biden’s foreign policy advisor. “[Biden] was front and center.”
Biden made his first visit to the post-Maidan government of Ukraine in April 2014, just as Kiev was launching its so-called “anti-terrorist operation” against separatists who broke off from the new, NATO-oriented Ukraine and its nationalist government and formed so-called people’s republics in the Russophone Donbass region. The fragmentation of the country and its grinding proxy war flowed directly from the regime-change operation that Biden helped oversee.
Addressing the parliament in Kiev, Biden declared that “corruption can have no place in the new Ukraine,” stating that the “United States has also been a driving force behind the IMF, working to provide a multi-billion package to help Ukraine..”
That same month, Hunter Biden was appointed to the board of Burisma.
Burisma recruits Hunter Biden
The ouster of Yanukovych put the founder and president of Burisma, Mykola Zlochevsky, in a delicate spot. Zlochevsky had served as the environment minister under Yanukovych, handing out gas licenses to cronies. Having watched the president flee Ukraine for his life, currying favor with the Obama administration was paramount for Zlochevsky.
He was also desperate to get out of legal trouble. At the time, a corruption investigation in the UK had resulted in the freezing of $23 million of Zlochevsky’s assets. Then, in August 2014, the oligarch was forced to follow Yanukovych into exile after being accused of illegally enriching himself.
The need to refurbish Burisma’s tattered image, as well as his own, prompted Zlochevsky to resort to a tried and true tactic for shadowy foreign entities: forking over large sums of money to win friends in Washington. Hunter Biden and the Atlantic Council were soon to become two of his best friends.
Hunter Biden was no stranger to trading on his father’s name for influence. He had served on the board of Amtrak, the train line his father famously rode more than 8,000 times, earning himself the nickname “Amtrak Joe.” Somehow, he also rose to senior vice president at MBNA, the bank that was the top contributor to Joe Biden’s senate campaigns.
Moreover, the vice president’s son reaped a board position at the National Democratic Institute, a US-funded “democracy promotion” organization that was heavily involved in pushing regime change in Ukraine. And then there was Burisma, which handed him a position on its board despite his total lack of experience in the energy industry and in Ukrainian affairs.
Hunter Biden tried to repay the $50,000-a-month gig Zlochevsky had handed him by enlisting a top DC law firm, Boies, Schiller, and Flexner, where he served as co-counsel, to help “improve [Burisma’s] corporate governance.” By the following January, Zlochevsky’s assets were unfrozen by the UK.
Back in Washington, the arrangement between the son of the vice president and a less than scrupulous Ukrainian oligarch was raising eyebrows. During a May 13, 2014 press conference, Matt Lee of the Associated Press grilled State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki about Hunter Biden’s role on Burisma’s board.
“Does this building diplomatically have any concerns about potential perceptions of conflict or cronyism – which is what you’ve often accused the Russians of doing?” Lee asked Psaki.
“No, he’s a private citizen,” Psaki responded, referring to Hunter Biden.
In a December 2015 op-ed, the editorial board of the New York Times took both Bidens to task for the unseemly business arrangement: “It should be plain to Hunter Biden that any connection with a Ukrainian oligarch damages his father’s efforts to help Ukraine. This is not a board he should be sitting on.”
For a paper that had firmly supported the installation of a US-aligned government in Kiev, this was a striking statement.
Hunter Biden maintained that he had only a brief conversation with his father about his work at Burisma. “Dad said, ‘I hope you know what you are doing,’ and I said, ‘I do,'” Hunter recalled to the New Yorker.
Despite his constant focus on Ukraine, the elder Biden claimed this September that he never spoke to his son about his business dealings in the country.
A disaster for Ukrainians, a boon for the Bidens
On January 12, 2017, the criminal probes of Zlochevsky and Burisma were officially closed under the watch of a new Ukrainian prosecutor.
Less than a week later, Biden returned to Ukraine to make his final speech as vice president. By this point, three years after the Maidan uprising overthrew Yanukovych, it was clear that the national project the vice president personally had presided over was a calamitous failure.
As even the Atlantic Council’s Aslund was willing to admit, Ukraine had become the poorest country in Europe. The country had also become the top recipient of remittances in Europe, with a staggering percentage of its population migrating abroad in search of work.
Meanwhile, Amnesty International stated: “Ukraine is descending into chaos of uncontrolled use of force by radical [far-right] groups. Under these conditions, no person in Ukraine may feel safe.” As the country’s proxy conflict with pro-Russian separatists dragged on, it transformed into a supermarket for the international arms trade.
Meanwhile, Biden’s son Hunter was making a small fortune by simply warming a seat on Burisma’s board of directors.
During his 2017 press conference in Kiev, Biden seemed oblivious to the trends that were driving Ukraine into ruin. He encouraged Ukraine’s leadership to continue on an IMF-led path of privatization and austerity.
He then urged Kiev to “press forward with energy reforms that are eliminating Ukraine’s dependence on Russian gas,” once again advancing policy that would serve as a boon to the energy firms plowing their cash into the Atlantic Council.
Burisma recruits the Atlantic Council
Even with Hunter Biden on his company’s board, Zlochevsky was still seeking influential allies in Washington. He found them at the Atlantic Council in 2017, literally hours after he was cleared of corruption charges in Ukraine.
On January 19, 2017 – just two days after the investigation of Zlochevsky ended – Burisma announced a major “cooperative agreement” with the Atlantic Council. “It became possible to sign a cooperative agreement between Burisma and the Atlantic Council after all charges against Burisma Group companies and its owner [Mykola] Zlochevskyi were withdrawn,” the Kyiv Post reported at the time.
The deal was inked by the director of the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia program, a former US ambassador to Ukraine named John Herbst.
Since then, Burisma helped bankroll Atlantic Council programming, including an energy security conference held this May in Monaco, where Zlochevsky currently lives.
“[Zlochevsky] invited them purely for whitewashing purposes, to put them on the façade and make this company look nice,” Daria Kaleniuk, executive director of Ukraine’s Anti-Corruption Action Center, said of the Monaco event to the Financial Times.
At one such conference in Monaco, then-Burisma board member Hunter Biden declared, “One of the reasons that I am proud to be a member of the board at Burisma is that I believe we are trying to figure out the way to create a radical change in the way we look at energy.” (Hunter Biden left Burisma with $850,000 in earnings when his father launched his presidential campaign this year).
While the Atlantic Council was bringing Burisma in from the cold, the company was still too toxic for much of the business world to touch.
As the Financial Times noted, the American Chamber of Commerce in Ukraine had rejected Burisma’s application for membership. “We’ve never worked with them for integrity reasons. Never passed our due diligence,” a Western financial institution told the newspaper.
“The company just does not pass the smell test,” a businessman in Ukraine commented to the Financial Times. “Their reputation is far from squeaky clean because of their baggage, the background and attempts to whitewash by bringing in recognizable Western names on to the board.”
In fact, a year before the Atlantic Council initiated its partnership with Burisma, the think tank published a paper describing Zlochevsky as “openly on the take” and deriding board members Hunter Biden and former Polish President Aleksander Kwasniewski as his “trophy foreigners.” (Kwasniewski is today a member of the Atlantic Council’s international advisory board).
For Herbst, however, Burisma’s generosity seemed too hard to resist.
“If there are companies that want to support my work, if those companies are not doing anything that I know to be illegal or unethical, I’ll consider their support,” Herbst stated in reply to questions about the Burisma partnership from the Ukrainian news site, Hromadske.
“They’ve been good partners,” he added.
Men of integrity
The Atlantic Council has provided more than just a web of influence for figures like Biden and Zlochevsky. It extended into the Trump administration, through a former employee who served as the president’s lead envoy to Ukraine.
On the sidelines of a September 2018 Atlantic Council event in New York City, Burisma advisor Vadym Pozharskyi held a meeting with Kurt Volker, then the State Department Special Liaison to Ukraine. A former senior advisor to the Atlantic Council and national security hardliner, Volker had earned praise from Biden as a “solid guy.”
At the time, Volker also served as the executive director of the McCain Institute, named for the senator, John McCain, who authored the congressional provision requiring the US to budget 20 percent of all aid to Ukraine for offensive weapons. As I reported in 2017, the McCain Institute’s financial backers included the BGR group, whose designated lobbyist, Ed Rogers, was a lobbyist for Raytheon – the company that produced the Javelin missiles that both Volker and the Atlantic Council wanted sold to Ukraine.
Following his abrupt resignation this September, Volker was called to testify before the House of Representatives Committee on Foreign Affairs on the so-called Ukrainegate affair. There, he defended Biden as “a man of integrity and dedication to our country” who would never be “influenced in his duties as Vice President by money for his son…”
Biden’s chief advisor on Ukraine goes to work for Burisma’s favorite DC think tank
Throughout Biden’s tenure as the “point person” on Ukraine, one figure was constantly by his side: Michael Carpenter, a former Pentagon specialist on Eastern Europe who became a key advisor to Biden on the National Security Council. When Carpenter traveled with Biden to Ukraine in 2015, he helped provide the Vice President with talking points throughout his trip.
Once Trump was inaugurated, Carpenter followed fellow members of the Democratic foreign policy apparatus into the think tank world. He accepted a fellowship at the Atlantic Council, and assumed a position as senior director of newly founded Penn Biden Center for Diplomacy and Global Engagement, which provided office space to Biden when he was in Washington.
At the January 23, 2018 Council on Foreign Relations event where Biden made his now-notorious comments about threatening the Ukrainian government with the withdrawal of a one billion dollar loan if it did not fire Shokin – “well son of a bitch, he got fired!” Biden exclaimed – Carpenter was by his side, rattling off tough talking points about Russian interference.
On stage at @CFR_org right now, Joe Biden pushing a distinctly neocon line on Russia. A blunt defense of his role in pushing NATO expansion, dismissal of its role in antagonizing Russia and calls for encouraging/backing internal opposition to Putin. https://t.co/SfogBggWk6pic.twitter.com/t5QPxYMulP
Since then, Carpenter has remained engaged in Ukrainian politics, throwing his weight behind some of the country’s most hardline elements. In July 2018, for instance, he helped welcome Andriy Parubiy, the speaker of the Rada (the Ukrainian parliament), to a series of meetings on Capitol Hill.
Parubiy is the founder of the Social-National Party, which the Washington Post’s Eugene Robinson described as “openly neo-fascist.” In fact, Parubiy appeared in a Nazi-style uniform, packing a pistol beneath a Wolfsangel symbol on the cover of his Mein Kampf-style memoir, “A View From The Right.”
After the Senate meeting with Parubiy, I challenged Carpenter over bringing the far-right politician to Capitol Hill. “Andriy Parubiy is a conservative nationalist who is also a patriot who cares about his country,” Carpenter remarked to me. “I don’t think he has any neo-Nazi inclinations, nor background.” He went on to dismiss the basis of my question as “mostly Russian propaganda.”
Months later, Carpenter staged a meltdown on Twitter over the incident, fabricating quotes by me, branding me as a “sleeze” [sic] and “pro-Asad and pro-Putin scumbag,” while falsely and baselessly claiming I “enlist[ed] RT,” the Russian-backed news network, “to do an exposé on him.”
Asked by The Grayzone about Carpenter’s work for a think tank funded by Burisma while simultaneously involving himself in Biden’s political machine, Atlantic Council media relations deputy director Alex Kisling stated, “Council staff and fellows are free to participate in election activity as individuals and on their own time, provided they do so in a way that could not be seen as acting as a representative of the Council or implying Council endorsement of their activity or views. Michael’s affiliations and previous service are on our website. (He is not part of our full time staff).”
The Penn Biden Center did not respond to a question on whether it supported Carpenter’s work at the Burisma-backed Atlantic Council.
The Beltway press scrubs Burisma’s ongoing influence-buying
As the scrutiny of Biden’s dealings in Ukraine intensifies, Carpenter has thrust himself into the media limelight to defend his longtime boss.
In an October 7 Washington Post op-ed denouncing Trump’s “smear campaign” against Biden, Carpenter insisted that Biden had gone to great lengths to remove the Ukrainian prosecutor, Shokin, for his failure to take action against Burisma. That evening, Carpenter took to Rachel Maddow’s show on MSNBC to reinforce the message that Biden moved against “corrupt players” in Ukraine, presumably referring to Burisma.
At no point did he mention that Burisma was funding the think tank that hosted him as a senior fellow.
In publishing an “explainer” purporting to debunk the charges against Biden, the Atlantic Council also failed to mention its ongoing relationship with Burisma. Atlantic Council media relations deputy director Kisling dismissed the non-disclosure, telling The Grayzone, “The Council discloses its funding from Burisma on its website and whenever asked.” (Ironically, the Atlantic Council has pushed for greater transparency in political advertising on Facebook, one of the top donors to the think tank).
Perhaps the most absurd omission took place in a GQ article about Ukrainegate by reporter and Russia-watcher Julia Ioffe. In painting Ukraine – the largest nation entirely located in Europe – as a “small country” drowning in corruption, Ioffe noted, “the best way to launder one’s shady reputation and shine for international investors is to hire big-name Western consultants – as Burisma did.”
In the very next paragraph, Ioffe quoted Daniel Fried, a former State Department official now serving as a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. “It’s a country where there’s a lot of freelance money and a lot of competing interests,” Fried remarked.
Revealingly, Ioffe failed to acknowledge that Fried was one of those “big-named Western consultants” helping to launder Zlochevsky and Burisma’s “shady reputation” through the Atlantic Council.
In fact, Fried was photographed in a one-on-one meeting with Burisma advisor Vadim Pozharskyi at a September 2018 Atlantic Council conference in New York City.
As the furor over “Ukrainegate” continues, Biden and his allies are soldiering ahead, insisting that scrutiny of his activities in Ukraine constitute nothing more than a vast right-wing conspiracy.
Meanwhile, the Beltway press shrugs at Burisma’s buying of influence at a powerful think tank intertwined with Biden’s political operation.
Russia might be a “kleptocracy” and Ukraine might be endemically corrupt, but in Washington, this is all business as usual.