Inside the shadowy Washington PR network with ties to dictators' cronies, war criminals, and suspicious Ukrainian arms transporters.
Russia's annexation of Crimea and its creeping invasion of southern and eastern Ukraine have had a small but discernible impact on the tenebrous world of Washington public relations. Yesterday's plausibly defensible "partner" in the Kremlin has become today's revanchist bully, intent on an Anschluss of sovereign European territory. As a result, those who have worked quietly over the past few years to enhance the image and credibility of the Kremlin, its former allies, its client states, or its commercial associates now find themselves on the receiving end of greater scrutiny -- and of the more emboldened legal countermeasures of nongovernmental organizations whose efforts to uncover or investigate these unflattering associations have been previously hampered by the constant threat of civil litigation.
The nice thing about a foreign-policy crisis is that it can make the U.S. government an accidental safeguard against libel. On April 11, C4ADS, originally founded as the Center for Advanced Defense Studies, a Washington-based global conflict and security research group, filed a complaint requesting a declaratory judgment and anti-suit injunction in the Superior Court of the District of Columbia against three defendants who now suddenly find themselves in unfashionable company. The first is Kaalbye Shipping International, a Ukrainian shipping company registered in the British Virgin Islands but based in the largely Russian-controlled Ukrainian port city of Odessa. C4ADS maintains in its 2013 report, "The Odessa Network: Mapping Facilitators of Russian and Ukrainian Arms Transfers," a copy of which is attached to its court complaint, that Kaalbye transported Russian military equipment to Syria, China, Venezuela, and Angola and that the company's senior personnel have close ties to "organs of state power" in Moscow. Kaalbye, C4ADS also says, has shipped materiel to rogue regimes from St. Petersburg and the southeastern Ukrainian port city of Oktyabrsk. C4ADS calls Kaalbye in that report "the single most active shipper of Russian and Ukrainian weapons."
The second defendant is Kaalbye's Washington-based public relations firm, Global Strategic Communications Group (GSCG), which "has published articles on behalf of KAALBYE that defame C4ADS," according to the court filing.
The third defendant is Peter Hannaford, GSCG's senior consultant, who is one of the alleged defamers. Hannaford published two attacks on the NGO and concurrent defenses of Kaalbye in the conservative outlets the American Spectator and the Washington Times. Neither of those publications disclosed his affiliation with a paid agent of the shipping company.
Kaalbye's own legal counsel is another, albeit more prominent, Washington presence: international law and lobbying firm Patton Boggs, which has apparently asked C4ADS to "repudiate" what Kaalbye alleges are "libelous statements" made in "The Odessa Network." For its part, C4ADS counters that the statements are not only accurate but are consistent with numerous press reports, Kaalbye's own admissions, and even U.S. military statements about the shipping company's activities and assets. C4ADS's case "arises from KAALBYE's serious and immediate threats of litigation against C4ADS, and from KAALBYE, GSCG's and HANNAFORD's defamation statements and tortious interference with C4ADS's business relations," the court filing states. Farley Mesko, one of the two authors of "The Odessa Network" and the chief operating officer of C4ADS, told Foreign Policy: "As we see it, this was a matter of sue or be sued. Offense or defense. Given the groundless nature of Kaalbye's complaints and their efforts to defame our professional reputation, we prefer offense."
And C4ADS certainly goes out of its way to give it. The most intriguing reading in its filing concerns GSCG, a relatively obscure PR outfit, the website of which is now offline. GSCG's senior staff consist of a handful of Beltway insiders with histories of publicly defending or contractually working on behalf of odious international figures, many of whom are now sanctioned by the U.S. government.
To begin with, GSCG has acted in the past as the legally registered foreign agent, under the U.S. Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA), of the "leadership of the Rodina Party," which included its then-chairman Dmitry Rogozin, now the sharp-tongued Russian deputy prime minister in charge of Russia's growing defense industry and the chairman of its Military Industrial Commission. Historian Timothy Snyder has described Rodina, which means "Motherland" in Russian, as a "far-right" party. "In 2005 some of its deputies signed a petition to the Russian prosecutor general asking that all Jewish organizations be banned from Russia," Snyder wrote in a recent essay for the New York Review of Books. Also, in 2005, Rodina was banned from taking part in the Duma elections after complaints that its advertisements incited race hatred. Rogozin became Russia's ambassador to NATO in 2008, from which position he strongly opposed Ukraine's and Georgia's accession to the military alliance. In March of this year, the Obama administration added Rogozin to its sanctions list on a host of Russian officials and politically connected oligarchs for his role in Russian President Vladimir Putin's invasion and annexation of Crimea. Rogozin, a friend of Putin's favorite action hero, Steven Seagal, laughed off his inclusion, tweeting: "Comrade @BarackObama, what should do those who have neither accounts nor property abroad? Or U didn't think about it?" According to GSCG's FARA declaration, in 2005 GSCG was Rogozin's public relations arm in the United States, responsible for "preparing or disseminating informational materials" and representing him across all media platforms. The PR firm received more than $30,000 for its services.
FP contacted GSCG's current managing partner, Darren Spinck, for comment about this work for Rogozin and Rodina. GSCG's attorney responded: "GSCG has not rendered any services for Rodina since early 2006."
Hannaford, meanwhile, resigned a decade ago as managing director of the Committee on the Present Danger, a day after the former anti-Soviet advisory body was relaunched to help prosecute the war on terror. Why? The New York Sun disclosed that Hannaford's former lobbying firm, Carmen Group, had charged $40,000 a year to act as the U.S. representative of the far-right Austrian Freedom Party, then headed by the now-deceased Jörg Haider, who once praised the Third Reich for its "orderly employment policy" and paid a "solidarity visit" to Saddam Hussein in Baghdad in 2002. (In fairness, the solidarity may have been slightly incentivized; an investigation carried out by the Austrian newsmagazine Profil in 2010 suggested that Haider was paid over $1 million by the Iraqi dictator.) Hannaford defended his work for the Freedom Party, saying at the time that while Haider "said many silly things and he was trying to live them down," other Austrian MPs from the party were "quite levelheaded" and supported "sensible" programs. Nevertheless, Hannaford seems to have regained a level of prominence in the Committee on the Present Danger in the ensuing years. The group's website, which appears to have been updated as recently as March of this year, now informs us that he is not only still a member but was recently elected vice president of its board.
FP attempted to reach Hannaford for comment via both his Committee and personal email addresses (the second of which was listed on his American Spectator biography but appears to be no longer valid), as well as through GSCG's listed phone number. These attempts were unsuccessful. FP also tried to relay our request for comment from Hannaford through Spinck, but Hannaford did not reply to this request.
Odd Friends Indeed
Judging by their open-source paper trails, GSCG's executives seem to have a fondness for a wide assortment of autocrats and strongmen. In 2003, James George Jatras, now the managing director of GSCG, worked for the Washington-based law firm Venable, which signed a lobbying agreement with Alex Kiselev, the representative of then-Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych. This agreement, a copy of which was originally published by the Ukrainian newspaper Ukrainska Pravda in 2009, was witnessed and signed by Spinck. It stipulated that "Venable will work to ensure access to high-level figures in the Executive and Legislative Branches of government, media, think tanks, and other entities that may be useful to enhancement of Mr. Yanukovych's profile in the United States." Venable would also, so states the agreement, "write and distribute talking points, press advisories, and other materials favorable to Mr. Yanukovych to influential figures in the United States, particularly in Washington, D.C., to the end of stimulating positive media coverage and policy analysis in the United States of Mr. Yanukovych and the value to the United States of working with him for better ties between Washington and Kyiv." An addendum to the agreement also held that Venable would "endeavor to arrange a personal meeting at the White House between Prime Minister Yanukovych and President Bush, under circumstances appropriate for a visiting head of government." The retainer for trying to make this meeting happen was $20,000; the "success fee" was $60,000.
When contacted by FP, Jatras, the former Venable employee who signed the agreement with Kiselev, declined to answer questions regarding his own view of Yanukovych's handling of the Euromaidan protests, the Ukrainian president's subsequent removal from power, or whether -- if there were no U.S. sanctions currently in place against Yanukovych -- Jatras would represent him again today.
The reason that Ukrainska Pravda bothered to uncover this intimate arrangement between American "PR-niki" and the Yanukovych regime was that one of the newspaper's journalists, Serhiy Leshchenko, had been invited to participate in an event put on by a Kiev-based organization known as the American Institute in Ukraine. The person who did the inviting was Dmytro Dzhanhirov, the director of 1+1, a Ukrainian state television channel, which had made a special project of vilifying the Orange Revolution leader and eventual Ukrainian president Viktor Yushchenko in 2004. Dzhanhirov claimed to be "assisting" the newish institute. But the more Leshchenko looked into the outfit, the less impressed he was. "Usually the American Institute in Ukraine," he wrote, "uses an outdated format: holding a round table and inviting a speaker from the U.S., who is meant to convince those present of the mistake of Ukraine's path into NATO."
As of the time of this article's publication, the American Institute in Ukraine lists as its communications manager GSCG founder Darren Spinck, and as its executive director Anthony Salvia, another director of GSCG. However, the Ukrainian phone number listed for the American Institute is out of service. Spinck's attorney told FP that this organization "has not conducted activities inside Ukraine since violence erupted in Kiev and has closed its office there."
According to his bio at the now-offline GSCG website, Salvia served in a variety of roles in Ronald Reagan's administration, including as the Pentagon's staff assistant in the Office of European and NATO Affairs, a position that seems to have turned him off to expanding the alliance into countries of the former Soviet Union. He also lists himself as an "[o]fficial observer to the Russian presidential election 2012 … and the Russian parliamentary election 2011," but doesn't disclose what his observations were of those two exercises in so-called "managed democracy."
Not that Salvia is shy about his tendency in Ukraine's domestic politics. He wrote an op-ed for the Kyiv Post in January 2011 recommending Yanukovych -- then only a year into his abortive presidency -- for the Nobel Peace Prize. "One of [Yanukovych's] first actions was to cut a deal with Russia on natural gas transit to Europe, in exchange for price concessions for Ukraine's consumption," Salvia wrote. "He followed that up with dropping permanently the previous regime's efforts to drag Ukraine into NATO even in the face of overwhelming popular opposition (so much for Orange Revolution-styled democracy), and opting for non-aligned status instead." In that op-ed, Salvia also derided the accusation that Yanukovych was Putin's "puppet" -- an assessment that may be worth revisiting now that the ex-president, fresh from overseeing the murder of a hundred people in Kiev (with the ample aid of Russian intelligence agents) and fresh from being sanctioned by both the United States and the European Union for these crimes, fled Ukraine and alighted in the decidedly aligned environs of Moscow and Rostov-on-Don. "Judging by results, by tangible contributions to peace, Yanukovych's achievements in a short period of time are impressive," the op-ed concluded. "It is reasonable to suggest that he be counted among the [Peace Prize] nominees." (FP tried unsuccessfully through Spinck and the now apparently defunct American Institute in Ukraine to reach Salvia for comment.)
Even accused war criminals have received a helping hand from GSCG brass. In 2004, Jatras, previously a senior foreign-policy analyst at the Senate Republican Policy Committee, gave testimony in defense of Slobodan Milosevic during the latter's tribunal at The Hague, based on what he himself acknowledged was no "actual, direct evidence coming from the [the Balkans]," but rather from evidence "solely … within the government and the thinking in the government in Washington." Jatras testified, inter alia, that Bill Clinton's administration was complicit in Iran's delivery of arms to Bosnian Muslims via the Croatian government -- at a time when the United Nations had imposed an arms embargo on the former Yugoslavia -- and that it had ignored, as he recalled in court, the "al Qaeda and the Islamist orientation of the [Alija] Izetbegovic government" in Sarajevo. He also believed, as he stated at The Hague, that the Clinton White House "had made a decision to intervene militarily in Kosovo, either by creating circumstances where Serbia would consent to an occupation of Kosovo or through undertaking military action to bring about that result." Some of Jatras's testimony was based on Senate Republican Policy Committee reports he had authored in the late 1990s on the Balkan conflicts, and some was based on a House select subcommittee report on the possible U.S. role in Iranian arms transfers to Bosnia and Croatia, which carried majority and minority dissenting opinions, divided along partisan lines.
However, the suitability of Jatras's testimony was interrogated by the lead prosecutor of Milosevic, Geoffrey Nice, as were Jatras's own beliefs and writings. Nice cited an article Jatras published titled, "The Muslim Advance and American Collaboration," which had been adapted from a 1998 speech Jatras had given. The article, a version of which is available in full here, describes Islam as a "self-evident outgrowth not of the Old and New Covenants but of the darkness of heathen Araby." It further states: "I will leave it to the specialists to calculate which -- Islam or communism -- can claim the greater achievement as gigantic Christian-killing machines." And there's more. "But it is beyond me what spiritual values any Christian has in common with someone whose idea of beatific bliss is boinking an endless parade of the well-rounded houris said to inhabit the Muslim paradise," Jatras wrote. At The Hague, after these lines and others were read out for the court, Nice asked Jatras whether the expression of such views in such a way was "irresponsible." To which Jatras replied: "I think it is responsible to give testament to something that is historically accurate."
Jatras currently serves as the director of the American Council for Kosovo, a 501(c)(4) organization that lobbies against Kosovo's independence, claiming that such a country would be "an independent Muslim Albanian state dominated by terrorist and criminal elements" and would "[l]ead to the elimination of the remaining Christian Serb population." Spinck, the managing partner of GSCG, is the secretary of this organization, on the advisory board of which also sits Robert Spencer, who has been described by the Southern Poverty Law Center, a bigotry watchdog, as "one of America's most prolific and vociferous anti-Muslim propagandists."
In response, Spinck's attorney emailed FP: "The American Council for Kosovo is concerned with human rights and other policy issues in Kosovo. There have been well documented atrocities directed towards Christian Serbs living in Kosovo."
FP asked Jatras about his testimony on behalf of Milosevic. He referred us by email to this article written by Spencer and published on the latter's website, Jihad Watch, in 2008. It quotes Jatras as saying that his testimony was regarding "1. [the Clinton administration's] 'green light' for and complicity in the shipment of Iranian weapons to Islamic forces in Kosovo in violation of the UN arms embargo, and 2. the fact that the Clinton administration had already decided to attack then-Yugoslavia on behalf of the Albanian Muslims in Kosovo as soon as a suitable pretext could be arranged and months before any supposed 'ethnic cleansing' took place."
FP further queried Jatras about the ongoing civil war in Syria, which has killed upwards of 160,000 people; U.S. policy toward it; Kaalbye's prior shipment of military equipment to Syria; and whether he believes that Bashar al-Assad's regime ought to be armed by Russia, Iran, or any other state actor. Jatras would only refer us to this interview he gave to Iran's state-controlled Press TV in December 2012, in which he characterized the Arab Spring as "really a Sunni radical jihadist revolution" and accused the Obama administration of "deliberately all[ying] American policy with the most violent, most intolerant Sunni terrorist influences." He also wondered in that interview whether it was a "deliberate policy of the Obama administration that there should be a Christian-free Middle East."
The Kaalbye Connection
GSCG's corporate client and co-defendant in the C4ADS lawsuit has almost as fascinating a track record. While it's true that Kaalbye Shipping International has contracted with the U.S. Navy's Military Sealift Command and with NASA, it has generated more press as a party to several controversial arms deals going back over a decade, particularly those involving rogue or sanctioned regimes. Founded in the mid-1990s (the exact date is unknown) by Igor Urbansky, a former captain in the Soviet merchant fleet who later served as deputy minister of transportation in Ukraine and as an MP in Ukraine's parliament, Kaalbye is today said to be managed by Boris Kogan, a "partner to some of the most powerful defense-industrial figures in Russia," C4ADS writes in "The Odessa Network." Kogan is a board member of the Russian state-owned RT-Logistika, the company responsible for shipping military-spec radar to Syria via a commercial airliner, which the Turkish Air Force forced to land in Ankara while en route to Damascus in 2012.
Kaalbye was linked, according to "The Odessa Network," to consignments of assault rifles, grenades, and mortar shells sold by Russia to Angola in 2001, even as the African country was mired in a devastating civil war that killed half a million people. (There was a U.N. arms embargo placed against the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola, or UNITA, in 1993, but not the Angolan government. The embargo was lifted in 2002.) The Associated Press also reported that Kaalbye was the owner and operator of the MV Faina, a ship that was hijacked by Somali pirates in 2008 as it was transporting Kenyan-purchased T-72 tanks, 125 mm tank shells, RPG-7V rocket launders, and other sophisticated hardware to what was then southern Sudan and is today South Sudan. Kaalbye's ownership of the MV Faina was confirmed to the Associated Press by none other than the Bahrain-based U.S. 5th Fleet. The U.S. Naval Forces Central Command, which offered humanitarian aid to the ship, reiterated the company's ownership via U.S. Vice Adm. William Gortney, who gave testimony before the House Armed Services Committee on Counter-Piracy Operations in the U.S. Central Command Area of Operations in 2009. Despite such public and high-profile advertising, however, Kaalbye now denies, in a letter from its counsel, Patton Boggs, having "any relationship with the MV Faina or its alleged owner."
Kaalbye has also been named by a Russian news service as the delivery agent for X-55 cruise missiles that were shipped to Iran and China in 2000 and 2001 as part of a weapons deal inked by Russian and Ukrainian officials -- missiles, C4ADS says in its court filing, that "may have significantly enhanced Iran's capacity to deliver a nuclear warhead." (Kaalbye doesn't dispute the transfer to China, but it now maintains, in a letter issued by Patton Boggs, that it never took part in any like transaction with Iran.)
In 2008, Silver Streams Ltd., which was shown in a case with the U.S. District Court of the Southern District of New York to be one of Kaalbye's many alter egos, and Primetransport Ltd., a company registered in the British Virgin Islands and at the time the general agent for all Kaalbye's ships, transported 73,000 kg of military cargo from Rosoboronexport, Russia's state-owned arms supplier, to the Syrian Ministry of Defense's Army Supply Bureau, the Assad regime's arm for missile development and foreign missile procurement.
In 2012, as reported by the Washington Post, Kaalbye also sent $4 billion worth of Russian military equipment, including the S-300 anti-aircraft missile system, to Venezuela, and it admitted to the Washington Post that the same year, one of its ships, the Ocean Voyager, delivered "dual-purpose cargo" from Russia to Syria, but it maintained that this cargo was in full legal compliance with the rules of the International Maritime Organization. Even though the United States and the European Union had adopted sanctions on Syria in 2012, Kaalbye, as a British Virgin Island-registered company with a base of operations in Ukraine, a non-EU member, would not have been liable to those prohibitions. According to C4ADS, the ship's manifest, which the NGO has shared with FP, lists only "equipment" as the cargo description, but notes that it was consigned from "Rosoboronexport" to the "Ministry of Defense - Damascus."
C4ADS nowhere alleged that Kaalbye did anything illegal. To date, the only errors that have arisen as a result of the watchdog's investigation, it insists, were committed by the Washington Post, which made three factual mistakes in a 2013 article reporting on "The Odessa Network." It was these mistakes that Hannaford seized upon in his American Spectator and Washington Times articles, conflating the inaccuracies with what was contained in the C4ADS report.
The Washington Post had originally stated that the automated transponder of Kaalbye's ship, the Ocean Fortune, was not functioning properly during its lengthy voyage through the eastern Mediterranean in early 2013 and also that it had stopped in Syria during that voyage. The article also alleged that multiple vessels belonging to Kaalbye had malfunctioning transponders during their trips to Venezuela in 2012. These errors, subsequently acknowledged in a correction run by the Washington Post, do not appear in "The Odessa Network," C4ADS maintains.
The NGO referred FP to a section in the report that describes as "highly suspicious" the fact that the "Ocean Fortune loaded at Oktyabrsk 1-5 January , broadcast its last position heading southeast out of the Aegean on 9 January, and then reappeared outside the Eastern Mediterranean, reentering through the Suez Canal, on 7 March." The report, however, does not claim that the Ocean Fortune docked in Syria. It does acknowledge that a separate Kaalbye ship, the Ocean Voyager, traveled to Syria in 2012, which, as discussed above, Kaalbye itself admitted to the Washington Post.
"The Odessa Network" also states, in reference to Kaalbye's entire fleet, not just the Ocean Fortune, that "[m]any of Kaalbye's 2013 port calls at Oktyabrsk are followed by long periods with its ships missing from AIS coverage [Automatic Identification System, which picks up ships' transponder signals]" and that "[t]his pattern of Kaalbye ships docking at Oktyabrsk, entering the Mediterranean, then disappearing from AIS coverage has been most prevalent during periods of heavy Russian military aid to Syria. Russia allegedly surged heavy weapons shipments to Syria in Spring 2013, a period during which the majority of the Kaalbye heavy lift and ro-ro ['roll-on, roll-off'] fleet loaded cargo at Oktyabrsk, entered the Mediterranean, and then disappeared for weeks on end." C4ADS accounts for the missing AIS coverage for such vessels as follows: "The fact that so many of Kaalbye's destinations after leaving Oktyabrsk are not detected on AIS means either they are docking at areas with poor AIS coverage, or are deliberately turning off their AIS transponders to avoid detection."
The Washington Post's corrections regarding transponder functionality in the context of any trip to Syria pertained only to Ocean Fortune, not to any other vessels owned by Kaalbye.
Finally, the Washington Post stated in its original article that Ukrainian ship owner Vadim Alperin was a business partner of Kaalbye. The only mention of Alperin in relation to Kaalbye in "The Odessa Network" is in reference to the MV Faina, which the report claimed is "widely reported to actually be owned and operated by Kaalbye Shipping and Tomex Team (closely linked to Ukrainian businessman Vadim Alperin)."
On May 1, weeks after C4ADS filed its declaratory judgment and anti-suit injunction, Kaalbye Shipping took out a column-sized advertisement in the Washington Post alleging that "The Odessa Network" had made "unsubstantiated" claims and that C4ADS's reporting and analysis were "inaccurate." As a result of this advertisement, C4ADS has filed an amended complaint alleging that such allegations are "false and defamatory." C4ADS's chief operating officer, Farley Mesko, told FP, "Despite their statements in the ad and elsewhere, the undisputed truth is that Kaalbye repeatedly transported cargo from the Russian arms industry to conflict zones and sanctioned states around the world, including Syria."
Bad publicity is something Kaalbye and its Washington-based PR firm are assiduously seeking to avoid. On May 16, the news site Vocativ ran a story on C4ADS's suit against the Ukrainian transporter and its spokespeople in the United States, casting it as a David-versus-Goliath struggle. A year after "The Odessa Network" was published, Yanukovych is an ex-president in exile in Russia, accused of stealing billions of dollars from his own people. Russia, meanwhile, has invaded and annexed Crimea and orchestrated, according to U.S. and Ukrainian intelligence, the takeover of strategic cities and roadways in eastern and southern Ukraine by separatist militias. Suddenly, working on behalf of Russian defense bigwigs and ousted Ukrainian kleptocrats, and reputation-managing a major arms transporter, has become a harder way to make a living on K Street.
Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images