Media Criticism

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

Progressive journalist Judd Legum wrongly framed Stand Together's statement as rooting for a partial Russian victory in Ukraine.


Stand Together is a charitable organization founded by Charles Koch that gives money to libertarian groups and causes. It works to advance classically liberal ideas on a variety of issues: school choice, criminal justice reform, regulation, and foreign policy, to name just a few. Stand Together works with right-leaning organizations on some of these issues, left-leaning organizations on other issues, and also with organizations that don't neatly fit the left-right paradigm. (Disclosure: Reason Foundation, the nonprofit that publishes Reason, receives support from Stand Together.)

Unfortunately, many progressive journalists—and even some populist conservatives—view everything connected to Charles Koch and his late brother David as nefarious by default. In their zeal to denounce the Koch brothers' influence on American politics, they end up attacking policies that they should otherwise support.

Case in point is this bizarre and misleading "exclusive" report on Stand Together from Judd Legum, a progressive journalist who writes the newsletter Popular Information. Legum accuses Stand Together of supporting a "partial victory" for Russia in Ukraine, and wanting the U.S. to drop "virtually all" Russian sanctions.

"In an internal email obtained exclusively by Popular Information, Stand Together, the influential non-profit group run by right-wing billionaire Charles Koch, argues that the United States should seek to deliver a partial 'victory' to Russia in Ukraine," writes Legum. "The email was sent to Stand Together staff by Dan Caldwell, the group's Vice President of Foreign Policy, on March 16. The subject line was 'An Update on Ukraine.'"

Nowhere in his article does Legum share the email in its entirety: Instead, he selectively quotes from it, leaving out important, clarifying context. He also takes great pains to portray skepticism of the long-term effectiveness of economic sanctions as some kind of kooky, fringe belief.

Legum describes Caldwell's email as offering a "boilerplate" denunciation of Russian President Vladimir Putin that "quickly pivots" to a "broad rebuke of international efforts to sanction the Russian government," as if the sentiment expressed is brief or insincere. Here is the relevant section of the email:

I wanted to take a moment to better connect you to our sense of things regarding the war in Ukraine.

Russia's invasion of Ukraine is immoral, unjustified, and should be immediately halted. In addition, the regime of Vladmir Putin is authoritarian and has inhibited the Russian people from enjoying the benefits of a free and open society.

Throughout our decades-long history, our community has consistently stood against unjust wars and advocated for peaceful relations between nations.

So while we support the Ukrainian people, we also must do everything we can to prevent escalation and reduce the threat of nuclear conflict.

Understandably, the invasion of Ukraine and the suffering inflicted on its people by the Putin regime has evoked a strong response among us all. 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.

However, it is not in America's or anyone's interest for the war to escalate into a larger conflict between a nuclear-armed Russia and the United States. Especially not the Ukrainians, who will bear the brunt of a more violent and widespread conflict.

This is not to say the United States should do nothing.

I am not sure why Legum reads this as a "boilerplate" denunciation followed by a "quick pivot." I read it as sober and well-considered—in truth, I can't find anything with which to disagree. (Though perhaps Legum would say that I too am compromised by Koch dollars.)

In the next half of the statement, Caldwell expresses support for sanctions against specific Russian leaders, and says that broader sanctions should "never be taken off the table." But he perceptively questions whether broad-based, long-running sanctions have generally succeeded in the past, and provides various examples of regimes that withstood sanctioning:

The United States should support diplomatic efforts to help end the war. An outright victory by either Russia or Ukraine is increasingly unlikely and a diplomatic resolution is the path that best limits the bloodshed and minimizes the risk that the current war could escalate into a larger conflict.

On the question of sanctions, aggressive and targeted sanctions against Russian leaders are warranted. Additionally, sanctions are a legitimate tool of American statecraft and should never be taken off the table.

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.

Most irresponsibly, Legum highlights the following line: "An outright victory by either Russia or Ukraine is increasingly unlikely and a diplomatic resolution is the path that best limits the bloodshed." He describes this as Stand Together advocating for the U.S. to "seek to deliver Russia a partial 'victory'."

But Caldwell clearly does not wish for Russia to achieve "victory," partial or otherwise; he is merely acknowledging that any peace will likely involve both Russia and Ukraine getting some things that they want. It's perfectly reasonable to concede that in order to end all the death and destruction, Putin will have to emerge from the conflict as something short of a complete and total loser.

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." They are certainly entitled to that opinion; there is little reason to doubt that the sanctions are making things harder in Russia, including for ordinary Russians. But it is not crazy to wonder whether the sanctions will meaningfully prevent Putin from continuing the war in Ukraine, or whether the amount of suffering we are dispensing to the Russian people is ultimately counterproductive or even immoral.

Legum's article has drawn well-deserved criticism from Michael Cohen, a fellow at the Eurasia Group Foundation, and Emma Ashford, who works for the Atlantic Council. Both described Legum's piece as a "hatchet job," and rightly so.

In response, Legum criticized Cohen and Ashford on the grounds that their organizations also received Koch funding. But Legum's pet expert, Fried, is also affiliated with the Koch-funded Atlantic Council, so the insinuation that a Koch affiliation means we should automatically reject an expert's criticisms backfires in all directions here.

The overarching point of Legum's article is to cast aspersions on Koch Industries' decision to continue operating several glass manufacturing facilities within Russia. Koch Industries, for what it's worth, maintains it will not "walk away from our employees there or hand over these manufacturing facilities to the Russian government so it can operate and benefit from them."

But it's absurd to characterize Stand Together's skepticism of sanctions as anything other than a sincere belief held by some libertarians, noninterventionists, and a great many progressives. Indeed, Rep. Ro Khanna (D–Calif.), one of the most left-leaning members of the House, has taken an identical position. Progressive Reps. Ilhan Omar (D–Minn.) and Cori Bush (D–Mo.) voted against the U.S. ban on Russian oil imports.

Legum did not respond to a request for comment.