Atlantic Council Scholars Made Millions Lobbying for Putin-Backed Pipeline

Conflicts of interest abound at historically hawkish think tank

Richard Burt / Getty Images
May 26, 2021

Two scholars at the Atlantic Council, the prominent foreign policy think tank that claims to staunchly oppose Russian influence, have raked in nearly $3 million lobbying in favor of a Russian pipeline that American officials worry will allow Vladimir Putin to increase his influence in Europe.

Since 2017, Richard Burt, an Atlantic Council board member, and Frances Burwell, a distinguished fellow, have lobbied for five European companies financing the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, which will transport gas from Russia to Germany. In addition to their perches at the Atlantic Council, Burt and Burwell are partners at McLarty Inbound, a consulting group that lobbies for foreign companies.

Burt and Burwell have used their positions at the Atlantic Council to further their work at McLarty. Burt has defended the pipeline at public Atlantic Council events and reportedly pitched it in private discussions with colleagues at the think tank. Burwell defended Nord Stream in at least one major media interview where she was introduced as an Atlantic Council fellow, though not as a McLarty lobbyist.

The conflict of interest highlights the complexity of competing interests at the Atlantic Council, which gives its experts and board members wide berth and which employs several former ambassadors vigorously opposed to the pipeline. It raises the question of whether the Atlantic Council, founded in 1961 to strengthen NATO and the Atlantic alliance, promotes a set of core beliefs any longer or has devolved into a free-for-all of competing views.

Burt did not respond to a request for comment. Burwell said that the Atlantic Council as an institution does not take positions on policy issues, and that "its many fellows/researchers take diverse points of view."

While Nord Stream 2 AG is based in Germany, it is owned by Gazprom, the Russian state-controlled energy giant. Five European companies—Shell International, ENGIE, OMV Aktiengesellschaft, Uniper SE, and Wintershall Dea—are major lenders to the project. The companies and their advocates have portrayed the 760-mile pipeline as a good business deal for Germany while downplaying claims that it serves Putin's geopolitical interests.

The companies paid $210,000 to McLarty Inbound in the first quarter of this year to lobby the State Department and National Security Council, according to lobbying disclosures reviewed by the Washington Free Beacon. They paid $840,000 in 2020 and $2,840,000 overall since August 2017. Burt and Burwell are the two lobbyists listed on the contract.

Two sources close to the issue told the Free Beacon that the Atlantic Council has had significant influence on the Nord Stream 2 debate. One source, a pipeline critic with insight into Atlantic Council activities, said Biden administration officials "care very much what institutions like the Atlantic Council say and think."

A senior U.S. official closely tracking the Nord Stream 2 debate agreed, telling the Free Beacon, "[The] Atlantic Council is seen as tough on Russia. Advocating a different path gives cover to those who oppose sanctions."

Both sources are concerned that Burt and Burwell have used the Atlantic Council's hawkish reputation as cover while promoting the Nord Stream initiative at the think tank and in meetings with U.S. officials. Politico reported that Burt attempted to sell Atlantic Council colleagues on the project in 2016, when he lobbied on behalf of Nord Stream 2's predecessor.

The Free Russia Foundation, a group that opposes the Putin regime, criticized Burwell in 2018 for failing to disclose her lobbying during an interview with NPR in which she discussed the pipeline. The group also criticized Burwell for attending an Atlantic Council event with Friedbert Pflüger, an Atlantic Council nonresident fellow who has advised Nord Stream.

If Burt and Burwell's lobbying effort is successful, the pipeline critic said, the Kremlin will have figured out that it can use European companies, lobbyists, and think tanks working hand in hand with American lobbyists to provide a veneer of respectability in the West.

"For the Russians, it's a very clear template," the critic told the Free Beacon. "If it works now, it will work in the future."

Burt and Burwell are not the only Atlantic Council insiders with a vested interest in Nord Stream 2. A handful of the think tank's donors also have a direct interest in seeing the pipeline completed.

ENGIE North America, the American subsidiary of the French company, contributed between $25,000 and $49,999 to the Atlantic Council in 2019, the most recent year for which the think tank has disclosed its donors. Uniper, a German company, paid at least $25,000 as one of the sponsors for the Atlantic Council Global Energy Forum held earlier this year.

Uniper CEO Andreas Schierenbeck and ENGIE's chief sustainability officer, Anne Chassagnette, spoke at the event, which was held in Abu Dhabi. Gérard Mestrallet, who was CEO of ENGIE when the company entered the Nord Stream deal, was slated to speak at an Atlantic Council energy event last year.

It is unclear to what extent Burt and Burwell have influenced the Atlantic Council on their clients' behalf. But Atlantic Council board members have had success influencing the thank tank on behalf of controversial foreign companies in the not-so-distant past.

Burt, who served as ambassador to Germany during the Reagan administration, helped arrange meetings in 2015 with Atlantic Council officials and a Russian client who would later purchase a stake in Nord Stream 2, according to emails released in an unrelated lawsuit last year.

Sally Painter and Karen Tramontano, a current and former Atlantic Council director, respectively, helped arrange a lucrative partnership between the Atlantic Council and one of their lobbying clients, the Ukrainian energy company Burisma Holdings. Burisma hired several Western consultants, including Hunter Biden, as part of an effort to burnish the company's reputation.

The Atlantic Council's relationship with Burisma came under fire within the State Department and among Ukrainian anti-corruption activists because of bribery allegations against Burisma's owner. The company donated $300,000 to the Atlantic Council from 2017 to 2019.

A spokesman for the Atlantic Council said that Burt and Burwell both maintain their roles at the think tank.

"Many members of our community are active in the debate over Nord Stream 2, and we have a significant body of work in opposition to the pipeline," Atlantic Council spokesman Alex Kisling told the Free Beacon. "We welcome diverse views, input, and debate at the Atlantic Council, and this issue is no different. Intellectual independence is at the foundation of our work, and each of our experts arrives independently at their own policy positions."