The American public has watched one passionate plea after another from Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy as he pressures western nations for more help in his country’s war with Russia.
Behind the scenes, a network of PR professionals, lobbyists and former government officials have also built a powerful messaging machine to help pull strings on media coverage and policymaking.
Their profile and reach has grown as the war in Ukraine consumed the halls of government and the airwaves. One of the biggest Washington power players for Ukraine is Andrew Mac, an adviser to Zelenskyy who heads the D.C. office of a Ukrainian law firm and has served as a liaison to the media on Zelenskyy’s behalf.
The White House has taken notice: Multiple people with direct knowledge said the administration has at times suspected that Mac has been a source for stories about Zelenskyy, and has suggested as much to several reporters covering Ukraine.
In an interview, Mac maintained that he “never sought relations with the media. The media sought me out.” Mac does serve as an adviser to Zelenskyy on the country’s ties with the United States. For example, during former President Donald Trump’s first impeachment, he advised Zelenskyy to “try to not get lured into any infighting,” he said. Mac was also tasked in the spring of 2021 with implementing a strategy to work with others to change the perception of the Russian threat to Ukraine.
“The Ukrainian government and Zelenskyy himself and the people around him are pretty sophisticated,” said former U.S. Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul, now a Stanford professor who has been in frequent communication with Zelenskyy’s government. “These are people around Mr. Zelenskyy who are like the intermediaries and interlocutors. They’ve been interacting with the American elites and American media for a long time.”
Separately, two firms that represent the Ukrainian oil and gas industry association have become de facto emissaries for the Ukrainian cause. Yorktown Solutions, a lobbying firm led by Daniel Vajdich, has conducted extensive outreach on the Hill, while KARV Communications, a New York City-based PR firm, has focused on handling inquiries from the press, according to interviews with employees at both firms. (Vajdich was a guest on POLITICO’s Playbook Deep Dive podcast last week.)
Before the war, these firms’ work focused on the Nord Stream 2 pipeline. Now, after the project has been sanctioned by the Biden administration, their advocacy has become far broader.
The Ukrainian PR network has spanned Washington and beyond. Zelenskyy held a strategic video call with McFaul about the country’s needs before the former official’s remarks in front of House Democrats. The administration sanctioned the company behind the Nord Stream 2 pipeline and banned oil and gas imports from Russia after requests from lobbyists for Ukraine’s oil and gas industry. The British embassy in the U.S. has handled communications for the Ukrainian embassy.
“We’ve gone from energy security to security,” said Vajdich, a former Senate Foreign Relations staffer and foreign policy adviser to campaigns for Republican Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas and Mitt Romney of Utah. “It is 24 hours, even when we’re sleeping the phone is on, and the phone is going off, and there are phone calls from Kyiv, and there are phone calls from others here in Washington both in and out of government … We speak to the administration. We speak to Capitol Hill. We certainly speak to media as well.”
The quick success in pushing for more military aid while winning glowing coverage across the media landscape shows that even Washington’s most derided industry — lobbying — can take a turn in the sunlight when the whole town is unified around one cause.
And as Russia invaded Ukraine, the crisis shed an unflattering spotlight on the lobbying and law firms that have represented Russian banks or oligarchs. Sanctions from the Biden administration forced many to sever their ties. But while Russian entities almost overnight became persona non grata, Washington has embraced Ukraine.
Professionals in the space are looking to get in on the action. Firms that have represented or represent Russian or Chinese interests have reached out to inquire about representing Ukrainian interests, according to a person familiar with the discussions who was granted anonymity to discuss private conversations. Andrew Frank, president of KARV Communications, said he has personally received calls from other public relations professionals who asked how they could help or how KARV got in contact with its Ukrainian client, an association for the country’s oil and gas industry.
Now, firms are running to represent Ukrainian interests. Mercury Public Affairs, which has a history of Russian clients, registered to lobby for GloBee International Agency for Regional Development, a nonprofit consulting agency supporting Ukraine. The strategic communications agency Portland, which also represents the Qatari government, said it was helping “Ukrainian civil society representatives connect with policymakers and media.” A Maryland attorney named Lukas Jan Kaczmarek registered with the Justice Department to source equipment and materials for Ukraine’s Defense Ministry.
Beyond formal lobbyists or communications professionals, the Zelenskyy administration has also been in communication with former government officials who speak with the Biden administration. Among them are McFaul and John E. Herbst, former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine and senior director of the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center.
“There’s a pretty, I would say, you know, a pretty dense network of former government officials interacting with Ukrainians who in turn then try to interact with U.S. government officials,” McFaul said.
McFaul, an alumnus of the Obama administration and an NBC News analyst, said he speaks with the Ukrainian government often, “probably everyday,” and has helped them make connections with NBC or MSNBC producers. He also regularly speaks with senior administration officials.
Last week, while McFaul was in Philadelphia to speak during the House Democratic Caucus retreat, he logged into a video call scheduled with a senior adviser to Zelenskyy’s chief of staff. To his surprise, Zelenskyy himself was on the other end, he said. “They knew that I was going to speak to members of Congress four hours later, and I don’t think it was an accident,” McFaul added of his call with the Ukrainian president. That brief call had an effect on how he speaks about the war, he said.
Mac, who registered as a lobbyist for Zelenskyy with the Justice Department in late 2019, has said he is not receiving compensation for his advisory role. For the American-educated lawyer, with degrees from Vanderbilt University and Lehigh University, the issue is personal. A child of Ukrainians, Mac spent eight or nine years living in the country.
Two reporters confirmed that Mac is regularly in touch with journalists around D.C. and has occasionally facilitated high-profile interviews with the Ukrainian president. Last year, he helped arrange for Zelenskyy to appear on Axios’ HBO show, according to filings with the Justice Department.
Mac also offered input on Zelenskyy’s speech before Congress and arranged interviews with ABC News and NBC News for the Ukrainian president, according to someone aware of the discussions.
Before the war, both Yorktown Solutions and KARV Communications were receiving hundreds of thousands and tens of thousands, respectively, for their work on behalf of the Ukrainian oil and gas association. Between December 2020 and the end of November 2021, Yorktown reported $960,000 in payments for strategic advisory services. Since September, KARV has reported $119,944 in “Payment of fees and Cost per agreement.” However, both said that they are not currently charging their clients for their work.
Vajdich said that his firm has open communication and an ongoing dialogue with Zelenskyy’s administration along with Mac, who he asserted was an “adviser to the president” rather than a “lobbyist.” The oil and gas association tasked Yorktown with integrating the Ukrainian government’s views into its advocacy, Vajdich said.
The influence of those two firms has appeared to have grown. Ben Freeman, a research fellow at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, who has a forthcoming report about Ukraine’s influence operation in the U.S., said that lobbyists representing the country’s interests have faced few closed doors. Their adversaries, the Russian lobby in the U.S., have disappeared, as firms quickly dropped their Russian clients. As testament to that influence, members of Congress are now repeating the Ukraine lobby’s talking points, Freeman said. The Ukraine lobby frequently used the phrase “Putin’s weapon” to describe Nord Stream 2, a phrase that became more popular around the time that the administration issued sanctions on the company behind the pipeline, he added.
But Vajdich asserted that some members of Congress who opposed sanctions on the Nord Stream 2 pipeline were at one point less willing to meet with his team. His firm is still pushing for greater security assistance to Ukraine beyond Stingers and Javelins, along with secondary sanctions against Russian financial institutions, he said. Some lawmakers and the administration remain resistant to some of his requests.
“I think that will change,” he said.
Max Tani contributed to this report.
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