By Raoul Lowery Contreras
While the controversy over Russian 2016 election meddling is growing with more facts being revealed at the scope, depth, precision and finances involved, the issue of domestic U.S. enablers is barely scratching the surface. As U.S. intelligence, hi-tech firms and media will undoubtedly unveil more astonishing facts about the Russian government’s involvement, the role and efforts by various personalities on the U.S. soil and domestic lobbies deserve additional scrutiny to investigate the complex web of connections with Putin’s Kremlin. The most peculiar triangle connecting Russian interference in the U.S. domestic affairs is that of the Armenian lobby, specifically, Armenian-American lobby working with ethnic Armenians from Russia and from Armenia to achieve Putin’s goals.
To Kremlin-watchers there was little surprise that Russian government has once again entrusted and outsourced its anti-American propaganda to the Armenian lobbyists. One of the biggest signs was when the Kremlin appointed a relatively obscure Margarita Simonyan, a young Armenian journalist from a southern Russian province, in charge of Russia Today (RT) TV media empire and Dr. Andranik Migranyan, a well-known TV talking head who has been an advisor to former president Yeltsin and who still speaks Russian with a heavy Armenian accent, and is in charge of the New York branch of the so-called “Institute for Democracy and Cooperation.” The reason for this time-tested method – Russia has been entrusting its foreign policy objectives to Armenian lobbyists since the 17th century (curious case of Israel Ori) – was that United States is home to a large, wealthy, well-connected and very influential Armenian-American diaspora. It is no secret that the Armenian lobby in the U.S. is very persuasive and powerful – even the late U.S. National Security Advisor Dr. Zbigniew Brzezinski referred to the Armenian-American lobby as one of the three most influential in America.
Influential Foreign Affairs magazine agreed in a 2009 article: “The Armenian government spends virtually nothing on lobbying services in Washington, because it does not need to: the Armenian community in the United States, concentrated in California, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, and the New York area, promotes Armenian causes through financial contributions and its influence on Capitol Hill. The Armenian lobby in the United States is surpassed in strength and influence only by the Israeli lobby and the Indian lobby.”
Most foreign policy experts say that defining the Armenian-American lobby is fairly simple. Besides dozens of lobbying, propaganda, advocacy, grassroots, student, and cultural groups, only three have major foreign agenda, lobbying and active foreign relations: the Armenian Assembly of America (AAA) and the Armenian National Committee of America (ANCA), the Armenian General Benevolent Union (AGBU), and additionally an actual foreign agent: the Department of Justice’s FARA-registered “Office of the Nagorno Karabakh Republic in the United States” (ONKR) that is a lobbying shop setup and paid for by the Armenian government and other lobbying groups.
Der Spiegel in a 2007 article – still very relevant a decade later – titled “The Triumph of the Armenian Lobby” aptly notes:
Armenian-Americans are particularly active in California, New Jersey and Michigan — which happens to be the constituency of Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic Speaker of the House. Her Californian colleague Adam Schiff, who promoted the resolution, has the issue to thank for his own political career. His predecessor in the constituency lost his seat when he failed to push through the resolution in 2000. Armenian groups have been bombarding their representatives over the past few years with an unusually massive PR drive. Their most important umbrella group “Armenian Assembly of America” has 10,000 members and an annual budget of over $3.5 million. It employs four different influential PR firms in Washington…
While Nancy Pelosi might play less of a role now that she is in charge of the minority party in Congress, Armenian-Americans have a strong friend in the majority party, too – no less than Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell himself, who “helped steer high amounts of earmarks and mandatory allocations toward Armenia”. However, a far more interesting case is that of abovementioned Representative Adam Schiff, whose rise in Congress is owed to the Armenian lobby, is at the forefront of “investigating” Russian elections meddling as the ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee (despite not having military or intelligence credentials, nor speaking any foreign languages).
Armenian lobby (including ANCA, AAA and ONKR) in the U.S. have been working with Russian propaganda of RT/Sputnik which is led by fellow Armenians Margarita Simonyan and Andranik Migranyan (both constantly traveling to the US, having offices and staff here), whilst Russian foreign policy is led by Sergey Lavrov (himself of Armenian extraction), and Russian TV is full of Armenian “talking heads” and “kremlinologists” showering Putin’s policies with praise: Arman Keosayan, Roman Babayan, Gevorg Mirzayan, Semen Bagdasarov and Sergey Kurginyan, and ethnically Armenian media magnates like Aram Gabriyelyanov and Marina Gevorkyan. All while the Armenian-American lobby has a large Armenian Caucus in the Congress that works to oppose U.S. national security interests (e.g., removal of Armenia from the Department of Homeland Security list under George W. Bush Administration in the early 2000s, not sanctioning Armenia for transferring weapons to Iran to kill and maim American soldiers in Iraq in the late 2000s, providing millions in military aid despite being a Russian forward base, etc.)
There is a long history of ethnic Armenians at the service of Russian/Soviet intelligence services in the U.S. For example, in the 1930s and 1940s there were Maj-Gen. Hayk Ovakimyan, Lt-Gen. Arshak Vartanyan, Arthur Adame, Stepan Apresyan, Gevork Vardanyan, and others. Heads of foreign intelligence in 1920-1938 at NKVD was Yakov Davtyan.
While Armenia is a client of Russia and its military outpost, it would be a wrong to assume that Armenians are forced to do any of this, and that Kremlin “orders” its own ethnic Armenian citizens to make use of the Armenian-American lobby. The latter know full well who, why, and what for are using them, and are a willing participant. Indeed, Russia and Armenia coordinate not just their economies (as part of anti-EU groupings called Eurasian Economic Union and the Customs Union) and military (as part of anti-NATO grouping called CSTO) – Armenia’s borders, including airports, are secured by Russian border guards, and its defense is dependent on Russian military bases.
Russia and Armenia coordinate all of their efforts in America. To say that this is highly unusual would be an understatement – what other two non-neighboring nations deeply coordinate “on issues of cooperation” in the United States? Imagine China and Philippines “coordinating” their efforts in the U.S. on a regular and high-level basis. Can’t imagine? Exactly the point. For readers full appreciation of this state-level “coordination” efforts between Russia and Armenia here’s the full June 8, 2017 press release from the official website of the Armenian Foreign Ministry. Let it speak for itself:
On June 8, consultations between the Ministries of Foreign Affairs of Armenia and Russia were held at the Foreign Ministry of the Republic of Armenia on issues of cooperation with the North American states.
On the Armenian the consultations were led by Arman Akopian, the Acting Head of the Department of the Americas of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Armenia, and on the Russian side by Georgiy Borisenko, Director of the Department of North America of the Russian Foreign Ministry.
Arman Akopian briefed on the Armenian-American, Armenian-Canada collaboration, while Georgiy Borisenko touched upon the Russian-American and Russian-Canadian relations.
At the end of the consultations, the delegation of the Russian MFA was received by Ashot Hovakimian, Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs of Armenia.
This coordination is at every level of the government and is personally overseen by Armenian President Sargsyan as exemplified in this February 11, 2017 declaration: “Sargsyan expressed a conviction that this meeting in capital city Yerevan will be held in a constructive atmosphere. As per the President, Armenian-Russian allied relations stand out by their active discourse, broad foreign policy coordination, active work at regional and international platforms, and close cooperation in several areas.”
These should come as no surprise since the former Armenian head of state Serzh Sargsyan openly declared in his 2015 interview to the Russian state TV that Armenia will “coordinate its foreign policy with Russia”
Margarita Simonyan and her activities at the helm of RT/Sputnik have been subject to thorough analysis and investigation by the U.S. Intelligence Community Assessment (ICA) in January 2017. The ICA briefing even included a picture Simonyan used on her own talk show of her as a cartoon character stepping over The White House. Armenian President Serzh Sarkisian awarded a Movses KhorenatsiMedal to the chief editor of the Russia Today TV channel Margarita Simonyan – a Russian citizen born in Russia – “for her significant contribution in the development of journalism and high professionalism” in 2010. This adds to her medal she received from Vladimir Putin earlier. In an Armenian General Benevolent Union (AGBU) interview she is described as “handpicked by Putin to lead a network” and “in fact is Russia’s chief “spin doctor” for the world’s audience tuned to English.”
Former editor of Time magazine had this to say about RT and Simonyan: “When I published a diplomatic note on the State Department site accusing Russia of an “intense campaign of disinformation” and referred to Russia Today as “a propaganda bullhorn,” I was attacked on-air by RT and in an editorial by its editor-in-chief accusing me of cramming dozens of falsehoods into a few hundred words. (You can always tell what the Russians are doing because they accuse you of doing the same thing.) I had never watched RT before, and soon discovered that it was an often entertaining mélange of fact and fiction depicting a toxic America riven by corruption and racism featuring experts without expertise spinning wild conspiracy stories.“
The Financial Times described Margarita Simonyan as “editor of the Kremlin-funded 24-hour news network RT and a cheerleader for Russia’s propaganda efforts in the west…” In 2011, RT received at least $200 million from the Russian government for its operations. Interestingly, the main financier of RT in the U.S. is rumored to be Aleksei Iazlovsky, who was also RT America President, and pleaded guilty to tax fraud in 2013.
What makes it interesting is that fact that Aleksei Iazlovsky was a university friend and fellow student of Mikhail Lesin, the influential former Minister of Press under Putin who founded RT in 2005. Later, Lesin immigrated from Russia, and was rumored to prepare to testify against RT – but died under mysterious circumstances from “blunt force injuries of the neck, torso, upper extremities and lower extremities” in a Washington DC hotel in 2015.
In November 2017, Margarita Simonyan relented to U.S. outcry and decided to register RT as a foreign agent under the DOJ’s FARA. James Kirchick of Brookings provided an insight on the rationale of why RT should register as FARA in 2017.
Dr. Andranik Migranyan, who in the 1990s was an adviser to then president Boris Yeltsin, led the New York branch of the so-called “Institute for Democracy and Cooperation.” In March 2009 he was interviewed by Emil Sanamyan for the “Armenian Reporter” English language US-based publication, as well as for the Yandunts blog that Sanamyan maintains (being a fluent Russian, Armenian and English speaker, Sanamyan easily connects with likes of Migranyan). Aside from being a regular on Russian TV and Armenian media, Dr. Migranyan testified in the U.S. Congress, and was shown on U.S. government TV channel CSPAN.
According to the Institute of Modern Russia: “Andranik Migranyan is also a regular contributor to American and Russian publications. In the US, he has published op-eds in the Washington Post, the National Interest, the Christian Science Monitor, and Huffington Post. He has also been heard on CNN and the Voice of America. In his public statements Migranyan supports Vladimir Putin’s policies and presents the Russian president as a successful leader who has no equal. For example, on January 9, 2012, Migranyan published an article entitled “The Anti-Putin Campaign” in the National Interest, in which he accused some members of the Russian political elite (who happened to belong to Dmitri Medvedev’s circle) of attempting to discredit the “national leader.” He also tried to debunk what he called “myths” about the real strength of the protest movement, or about the “Putin-controlled media.”
As Free Russia Foundation wrote: “So, we are pleased to see such Goebbels-type propagandists on the Nemtsov list, which definitely could be expanded. For example, the so-called spin-doctors like Sergei Markov, Sergei Kurginyan and Andronik Migranyan should be on such a list – all those ideologists who justify the Kremlin’s repressive regime and propagate its agenda for the domestic and external audiences. Those “experts” tirelessly participate on all official channels’ broadcastings and are responsible for zombifying the Russian population. Another good candidate to the Nemtsov list is Margarita Simonyan, the editor-of-chief of RT (former Russia Today), English-language television news network, which is a huge global propaganda machine of the Kremlin’s interests. Free Russia Foundation supports exiled State Duma deputy Ilya Ponomarev’s campaign to make RT required to become registered in the U.S. under FARA as a lobbyist group.”
Simonyan and Migranyan sometimes join forces in the U.S., according to the Institute of Modern Russia: “Russian politicians, officials, diplomats, policy experts and members of public organizations known for their loyalty to the Kremlin are usually invited to participate in the World Russia Forum. The participants have included Russia’s Ambassador to the US, Sergei Kislyak; the current head of the Federal Agency for the Commonwealth of Independent States, Compatriots Living Abroad and International Humanitarian Cooperation, Konstantin Kosachev; the head of the Institute of Democracy and Cooperation Andranik Migranyan; Public Chamber member Sergei Markov; and Russia Today editor-in-chief Margarita Simonyan. Obviously, these people promote a positive image of Russia, presenting it as a modernizing, dynamically developing country that offers plenty of investment opportunities.”
The investigative journalists Grant Stern and Patrick Simpson also noted: “Andranik Migranyan, Putin’s man in New York, was also in attendance as was the head of Russia Today, Margarita Simonyan”
Indeed, Migranyan and Simonyan would often appear together at the WORLD RUSSIA FORUM organized in Washington DC by a pro-Russian lobbying group Russia House: in 2007, 2008, and 2009. Migranyan seems to have continued to participate in these annual conferences in subsequent years (2010 and in 2013) without Simonyan whose RT grew into a large operation worldwide. In 2016 a popular Russian newspaper Izvestia, owned by an Armenian media magnate Gabriyelyanov, quoted Andranik Migranyan and Margarita Simonyan on the fiscal constraints of Western media and effectiveness of RT.
As former CIA analyst Dr. Paul Goble reported on Armenian filmmaker Tigran Khemalyan’s accusations against his ethnic brethren, “Among these “’prophets’ of Russism,” he says, are theater director Sergey Kurginyan, “who has openly called for killing Ukrainians and shooting down their planes,” Andranik Migranyan, who has justified Putin’s aggression against Ukraine by referring to Hitler’s Anschluss of Austria, Margarita Simonyan, the editor of Russia Today, and Aram Gabrelyanov, “the master of ‘Izvestiya’ and the odious ‘Life News’ TV”. Note, Khemelyan points out, that these “true pillars of the Putin regime” are ethnic Armenians, and if one is inclined to conspiracy theories, they would to constitute what might appear to be “’an Armenian lobby’ in the Kremlin.”
Conspicuously, the Armenian-American editor and reporter Emil Sanamyan, who has been the direct connection to Andranik Migranyan, was an Executive Director of the Americans for Artsakh (AFA), a lobbying organization for Armenian government and its Russian-backed military in 2006-2007 (long-time Armenian Chief of Generals Staff is now head of anti-NATO’s CSTO block). From 2000 until 2006 he was a Research Officer at the Armenian Assembly of America (AAA) and from 1998 to 2000 he worked in the so-called “Office of the Nagorno Karabakh Republic in the United States” (ONKR), which is a lobbying group registered with the U.S. Department of Justice as a foreign agent (interestingly, for some time the ONKR office was inside AAA’s office). In a 2009 statement, Vardan Barseghian, the self-styled “NKR Deputy Foreign Minister” – basically, a high-level Armenian diplomat who was a foreign agent in the U.S. – singled out Emil Sanamyan by thanking him in his article “Defending Artsakh’s Interests in the United States,” and boasted about the fact that as Armenian foreign agents in the U.S. “We engaged with the State Department, Congress, policy and academic circles, media and the Armenian-American community.”
In 2014 Andranik Migranyan spoke, together with Mr. Van Krikorian, member of the Board of Trustees of the Armenian Assembly of America (AAA – the premier Armenian lobbying organization in Washington DC) at an even organized by the Armenian Society of Columbia University. In 2015 the “Institute for Democracy and Cooperation” closed its doors in New York, after Dr. Migranyan announced that his group is stopping its work because its mission of monitoring human rights in the U.S. has been “accomplished,” since “the human rights situation has improved in the United States.” The Institute continues its work in Paris, France, though.
It is still unclear whether Migranyan’s shop was closed due to ineffectiveness or truly “mission accomplished” – yet here we are investigating Kremlin’s electoral meddling in 2016.
More about abovementioned Van Krikorian from the press release of the MFA of Armenia: on September 30, 2017, Armenian Foreign Minister Edward Nalbandian received Armenian Assembly of America (AAA) Board of Trustees Co-Chairman Van Krikorian. FM Edward Nalbandian congratulated Van Krikorian on the occasion of receiving the Order of Honor – high state decoration awarded by the President of the Republic of Armenia, and “highlighted that it embodies the appreciation of the pro-Armenian activity of the entire structure of the Armenian Assembly of America.”
Another AAA Executive Director, Ross Vartian, has done a lot of lobbying for Armenia and has been holding high-level meetings with Armenian President Sargsyan for years as these photos from official Armenian government website attest. The AGBU president Berge Setrakian was also honored with an Order of Honor by President Sargsyan in 2011 in New York – for “the protection of national interests of the Republic of Armenia.”
Meanwhile, the Executive Director of the Armenian National Committee of America (ANCA) – the other large, active and well-funded Armenian lobby group in the U.S., Aram Hamparian, has appeared on Russia Today (RT) – and proudly mentioned that in his biography submitted for the hearings in the U.S. Congress:
ANCA has been subject of many controversies, chief among them the fact that their Chairman was Mourad Topalian – a convicted felon who was brought down on terrorism-like charges of storing and using explosives. ANCA itself has had CREW (Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington) file a complaint with the DOJ, IRS and Congress to investigate whether ANCA complies with DOJ’s FARA law
What makes all this more telling is that all major Armenian-American lobbies refuse to ever criticize Russian government and Kremlin. Take for example ANCA’s Aram Hamparian whose angry reaction to Washington Examiner’s 2017 article entitled “With Russia Strengthening its Alliance with Armenia, it’s Time to Cut off Foreign Aid to Armenia” not once included any criticism of Russia. ANCA’s chief propagandist enumerated every conceivable point to reject accusations of the Armenian-American lobby and the Republic of Armenia being pro-Russian – but not once did he reject Putin, Kremlin, or Russia.
The Armenian-American lobby – Armenia – ethnic Armenians in Russian government triangle would be incomplete without mentioning oligarchy and mafia personalia’s also involved. Notably, the Consul General of Armenia in Los Angeles since 2013 has been Sergey Sarkisov – an Armenian from Russia who has become a billionaire insurance magnate.
In other words, a billionaire citizen of Russia was appointed by another country, Armenia, as its Consul General – not Honorary Consul, but full-time diplomatic envoy that Consul General is – in a third country, the United States. Imagine Henry Sy, ethnically Chinese billionaire tycoon from Philippines, appointed by China to become Consul General of China in Los Angeles. Unreal, isn’t it?
Another notable persona is that of Ara Abramyan, a billionaire oligarch and president of the Union of Armenians of Russia, as well as a Board member of Triglobal, a PR agency working with Rudy Giulliani.
A no less interesting case is that of Armen Kazaryan, a criminal mafia boss better known by his nom de guerrePzo. As a vor v zakone– a Russian slang for mafia godfather – he became the highest ranking mobster nailed by the FBI, IRS and other law enforcement in the 2010 operation Power Outage.
What makes Armen “Pzo” Kazaryan interesting is not just his high status as a Russian-Armenian mafia mobster defrauding Medicaidof $100 million and living in the U.S., but the fact that he has enjoyed high-level connections and friendships to all three Armenian presidents: with David, son of Levon Ter-Petrosyan; with Sedrak, son of Robert Kocharyan, and with Alexander(Sashik), older brother of Armenian president Serzh Sargsyan.
Video: A group of Azeri-Americans chanting “Russian puppet, Russian slave” in reference to Armenia during a protest in front of Embassy of Armenia on the anniversary of 1992 Khojaly Massacre, in which Armenian and Russian troops from 366th regiment of Russian army committed mass killing of 613 Azerbaijani civilians. (Video: Courtesy of YouTube)
The cozy and well-coordinated relationship between the Armenian-American lobby, the Armenian government, and the Armenians within the Russian government has been largely overlooked. Robert Mueller and the U.S. mainstream media have concentrated on a simpler investigation of RT’s and more widely various Russian individuals’ and organizations’ influence on domestic affairs, 2016 elections and meetings with Trump’s campaign.
Raoul Lowery Contreras is the author of “The Mexican Border: Immigration, War and a Trillion Dollars in Trade” (Floricanto Press 2016) and “The Armenian Lobby & U.S. Foreign Policy” (Berkeley Press 2017). He formerly wrote for the New American News Service of the New York Times.