U.S. policymakers are finally realizing that Russia may have been covertly funding U.S. environmental organizations to shape public opinion and policies – especially energy and anti-fossil fuel policies – to Russia’s liking and benefit. Such Russian skullduggery has long been an open secret in Europe.
I recently wrote about U.S. efforts to identify and expose Russian anti-fossil fuel activities. In 2017, former chairman of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology Lamar Smith (R-Texas) and Rep. Randy Weber (R-Texas), who was chairman of the Subcommittee on Energy, sent a letter to then-Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin revealing a possible covert funding scheme. Now, Rep. Bill Johnson (R-Ohio) and other members of Congress are calling for investigations.
Europe got a head start in exposing Russian actions. In 2016 four researchers with the Brussels-based Wilfried Martens Centre for European Studies published “The Bear in Sheep’s Clothing: Russia’s Government-Funded Organizations in the EU,” identifying various ways Russia tried to influence European Union policies.
That report states: “This paper sheds light on organisations operating in Europe that are funded by the Russian government, whether officially or unofficially…. Their number and activities have been growing, but their financing is often complex and hidden from the public eye.”
Notice the part about financing being “complex and hidden from the public eye.” Russia doesn’t want EU officials, the public and other countries (e.g., the United States) to know what it’s up to.
Echoes of Russia’s EU efforts were exposed in the Smith-Weber letter.
The Martens Centre paper says Russia’s influence peddling is an example of “soft power,” which it defines as a “broad range of methods and institutions that the Russian government is using to influence decision-makers and public opinion in the EU.”
In 2012 Russian President Vladimir Putin described soft power as “a matrix of tools and methods to reach foreign policy goals without the use of arms but by exerting information and other levers of influence,” according to the paper.
Given the invasion of Ukraine, Putin has apparently abandoned his “without the use of arms” approach to influencing some countries.
Authoritarian governments have long engaged in U.S. influence peddling and disinformation, both before and after World War II and during the Cold War. But cultural changes in the United States and Europe may have encouraged even more Russian influence peddling.
The Centre’s study authors claim that Russian leadership saw the United States and European countries beginning to abandon their long-held values and commitment to freedom and democracy.
They may be right.
So, Russia decided to step in and use non-governmental organizations (NGOs), think tanks and “state-produced propaganda” to fill the “values vacuum.”
But how did Russia covertly fund these organizations? The Centre says a lack of transparency has kept the EU from having a complete picture of the financial flows. “Basically the money is transferred through various informal mediators (hawaladars) — companies or individuals based in tax havens such as Saudi Arabia, the Cocos Islands, the Pitcairn Islands or Nevis — before turning up at a company based in the EU.”
However, the authors note one source of funding is Russian-based fossil fuel companies Gazprom and Lukoil, whose goal is to reduce EU fossil fuel production. “According to one interviewee, mining shale gas in the EU would disadvantage Russia due to its financial dependency on the EU’s gas imports. The Russian government has therefore invested €82 million [about $90 million] in NGOs whose job is to persuade EU governments to stop shale gas exploration,” the Martens paper says.
By trying to turn public opinion and policy against fossil fuel production, especially fracking, Russian oil and natural gas producers would face less competition, allowing them to charge higher prices, realize greater profits and make Europe even more dependent on Russian oil and gas.
Mission accomplished! Unlike the United States, Europe never embraced fracking.
The Smith-Weber letter exposes similar Russian efforts to launder money intended to fund anti-fracking efforts in the United States. They write, “This scheme allows money originating from foreign countries like Russia to funnel money through Bermuda-based shell companies to environmental groups in the United States with the aim of disrupting the U.S. energy industry.” And their letter names names.
Even so, it’s important to point out that most U.S. environmental organizations truly believe in their cause and likely have no intention of being Russian shills. If they did benefit from Russian funding, they may not know its real source. The Martens Centre paper makes a similar observation: “On occasions, recipients may not be aware that the donations they are receiving originate from the Russian government.”
And that’s why Congress must expose any Russian financial shell games, funding schemes and money laundering intended to stymie U.S. energy production and independence.
Ukraine may be proving that Russia cannot use “hard power” very effectively, but Russia has a long and successful, if deceitful, track record of implementing soft power. Just ask the Europeans.