Koch Network Smeared as Pro-Russia for Suggesting Sanctions Might Not Work

Charles Koch established Stand Together as a charitable foundation that provides money for libertarian organizations and causes. The organization promotes classically liberal views on many issues, including school choice, crime reform, regulation and foreign policy. Stand Together collaborates with both right-leaning and left-leaning organisations on certain issues. It also works with other organizations, as well as with those that are not in the traditional left-right mold. (Disclosure: Reason Foundation publishes ReasonStand Together offers support.

Unfortunately, many progressive journalists—and even some populist conservatives—view everything connected to Charles Koch and his late brother David as nefarious by default. They end up attacking policies they would otherwise support in their quest to denigrate the Koch brothers’ influence over American politics.

One example is the bizarre and misleading report “exclusively” on Stand Together by Judd Legum (progressive journalist, who wrote it). Popular Information Legum claims Stand Together is supporting a “partial win” for Russia in Ukraine and wants the U.S. sanctions to be dropped “virtually every” Russian sanction.

Legum writes that Stand Together, an influential non-profit organization run by Charles Koch (right-wing billionaire) argues that the United States should try to give a partial victory to Russia in Ukraine. Dan Caldwell (Vice President for Foreign Policy at Stand Together) sent the email to Stand Together staff in March 2016. “An update on Ukraine” was the subject.

Legum doesn’t share the whole email anywhere in his article. He instead quotes portions of it and leaves out critical context. Legum also makes it clear that he doesn’t believe economic sanctions are long-term effective.

Legum says Caldwell sent an email that offered a boilerplate denunciation to Russian President Vladimir Putin and then “quickly pivots to a broad rebuke to international efforts to sanction Russia’s government.” It is as though the expression of sentiment was insincere or brief. The email’s relevant section is here:

To better understand our perspective on the War in Ukraine, I thought it would be a good idea to briefly connect us.

Russia’s invading of Ukraine is illegal, unacceptable, and must be stopped immediately. The authoritarian regime of Vladmir Putin has prevented the Russian people enjoying the advantages of an open and free society.

Our decades-long history has seen us stand against unjust wars throughout our existence and promote peaceful relations among nations.

While we are there to support the Ukrainian people we have to do all we can in order not only should we be supporting them but also prevent any escalation or reduce the danger of nuclear conflict.

We all have reacted strongly to the Putin regime’s invasion of Ukraine, and its suffering. This has contributed to demands from some for the United States to take a more aggressive posture against Russia – including calls for actions that would entail direct military strikes against Russian forces, such as the imposition of a NATO no fly zone over Ukraine.

But it’s not in America or anyone’s interests for the conflict to escalate into a bigger conflict between a nuke-armed Russia (or the United States). Not especially the Ukrainians who will be the victims of an even more destructive and extensive conflict.

It isn’t to suggest that the United States should not do something.

Legum may have meant this to be a boilerplate denunciation, followed by an “easy pivot.” I’m not quite sure what that means. I read it as sober and well-considered—in truth, I can’t find anything with which to disagree. Perhaps Legum might say, however that Koch-dollars have also compromised me.

Caldwell supports sanctions against Russian leaders in the following half of the statement and declares that they should be kept “never off the table”. He asks the question, however, if broad-based and long-running sanctions were successful in the past.

United States should back diplomatic efforts to bring an end to the conflict. A win by Russia or Ukraine in the war is becoming increasingly unlikely. Diplomatic resolutions are the best way to limit bloodshed and reduce the possibility of the conflict escalating into something larger.

Concerning sanctions, it is necessary to impose targeted and aggressive sanctions on Russian leaders. Also, sanctions can be a valid tool in American statecraft. They should not be overlooked.

However, overly-broad sanctions rarely work as intended and often strengthen the authoritarian regimes that are being targeted while increasing the suffering of ordinary people – something you already see taking place in Russia. Additional examples of this dynamic in action include Iraq in the 1990s’, Venezuela, Iran, and Afghanistan – all countries where people had no ability to hold their rulers accountable for the impact of the sanctions precisely because they were authoritarian regimes.

Legum’s most irresponsible statement is: “An absolute victory by Russia or Ukraine in any form is becoming increasingly unlikely, and a diplomatic solution is the best path to limit the bloodshed.” This is called Stand Together and it advocates for the U.S. government to “seek Russia a partial victory.”

Caldwell is not wishing for Russia to win “victory”, partial or otherwise. He is only acknowledging the possibility that both Russia and Ukraine will get some of their desired things. You can be quite reasonable in admitting that Putin must emerge from this conflict as a partial loser to stop all of the destruction and death.

Legum quotes two foreign policy experts—Brian Katulis and Daniel Fried—who think the current sanctions should remain in place and believe they are working to “reduce Putin’s resources for further aggression.” These experts are entitled to their opinion. There is no doubt the sanctions make life more difficult in Russia for all Russians. However, it’s not unreasonable to question whether or not the sanctions will effectively stop Putin from maintaining the war in Ukraine. Or whether or not the level of suffering we are allowing the Russian population to suffer is actually counterproductive.

Legum’s article is well-deserved criticism from Michael CohenThe Eurasia Group Foundation Fellow, is a member of the group. Emma AshfordThe Atlantic Council’s Managing Director is. Legum and his piece were described by both as a “hatchet work” and they are right.

Legum responded by criticizing Cohen and Ashford because their organizations received Koch funding. Legum’s personal expert Fried, who is also affiliated to the Koch-funded Atlantic Council has rejected criticisms.

Legum’s article has one goal. It is meant to make fun of Koch Industries decision to keep operating glass factories in Russia. Koch Industries maintains that it won’t “walk away” from its employees or give these facilities over to the Russian government in order to continue operating and profiting from them.

However, it is absurd to label Stand Together’s doubt about sanctions as any other than the sincere belief of some libertarians, non-interventionists, or a large number progressives. Indeed, Rep. Ro Khanna (D–Calif.Representative Ro Khanna, a member of Congress that is left-leaning, was elected to the House. has taken an identical position. Progressive Reps. Ilhan Omar (D–Minn.) and Cori Bush (D–Mo.) Voted against U.S. sanctions on Russian oil imports

Legum has not responded to my request for comment.