Russia’s foreign agents in America: Trump connection of Armenian lobbyists – OpEd

News.Az reprints from Eurasia Review an article headlined "Russia’s foreign agents in America: Trump connection of Armenian lobbyists – OpEd" by Peter Tase, pol

The concepts of hybrid warfare or asymmetric warfare are not new. A Cambridge University published research states that it “goes back at least as far as the Peloponnesian War in the fifth century BC.” [1] Although, these concepts have taken new prominence in recent years, with bold, aggressive and often successful actions by resurgent and revanchist Russia.

According to the Cipher Brief, “Through hybrid warfare and the Gerasimov Doctrine, Russia is increasingly blurring the lines between war and peace, business and crime.” It goes on, quoting Douglas Farah: “General Valery Gerasimov, the Chief of Staff of the Russian Federation’s military, developed The Gerasimov Doctrine in recent years. The doctrine posits that the rules of war have changed, that there is a “blurring of the lines between war and peace,” and that “nonmilitary means of achieving military and strategic goals has grown and, in many cases, exceeded the power of weapons in their effectiveness.” [2]

Historically, Russian and Soviet governments have admitted to have used Armenian Diaspora as its lobby and agents of influence in countries around the world, particularly in the United States. Mainly for that reason ethnic Armenian NKVD and later KGB agents were heading and overseeing delicate foreign spying activities in countries ranging from Iran to Turkey to the U.S. One of the most prolific Soviet Armenian spies, Gevork Vartanian, who is celebrated in both Russia (with a special commemorative webpage on the official website of SVR – Russia’s foreign intelligence service that is the legal successor to the KGB) [3] and Armenia [4], has monuments and scholarships named after him in there, even commemorative stamps were issued for six Soviet Armenian KGB spies, many of whom conducted their spy operations on U.S. soil. The Armenian Defense Ministry went further and even named a medal after Gevork Vartanian. Curiously, despite most of late spy Vartanian’s activities still classified; he never lost an opportunity to boast being trusted by the CIA and its upper echelons, including the director of the agency admiral Turner in the 1970s and 1980s, and recruiting assets on U.S. soil. [5]

In an interview with a prominent Russian military historian, Gevork Vartanian admitted: “When the known to me six foreign languages were not enough, I used a “golden key” – Armenian language.”

The interviewer, himself a Lt. Colonel of Russian intelligence, continued: “For the longest time I could not decipher the phrase “used a golden key.” Lastly, I understood: Vartanian used the Armenian language as a key method of communication in countries, where there is a strong Armenian Diaspora, and where its representatives are influential people, who have access to politicians and oligarchs or are themselves, such people. Through them, one can get information that constitutes military, economic or state secret. From political ethnography, it was known to me that countries, where Armenians have weight in governing positions are USA, France, England, Iran, Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Argentina; also Hong Kong and Singapore.” [6]

Living in New York and Washington DC, Gevork Vartanian and his wife had access to many prominent Armenian Diaspora members as they recollected information, potentially through the members and events by the Armenian General Benevolent Union (AGBU, founded in 1906), Armenian National Committee of America (ANCA, founded in 1918) and Armenian Assembly of America (AAA, founded in 1972). Considering that Vartanian’s cover story was that he and his wife, also a spy, were from Iran, it made it easy to connect to many Armenian-Americans whose roots were also from Iran.

As described in a Times of Israel article, Armenian diaspora and lobby in the U.S. seem to harbor warm feelings not only to Russia but also to Iran: “The established Armenian-American community seems to take Armenia’s relationship with Iran as a given. A September 2014 story in Asbarez, the Los Angeles-based Armenian-American newspaper of record … states disapprovingly that this revelation implicates “Baku’s involvement in the spying mission.” The report goes on to call out Azerbaijan’s government for its “hostility against the Islamic Republic.” One would think that an Armenian-American newspaper would applaud efforts to undermine Iran’s nuclear program. Instead, the newspaper condemns Azerbaijan “for aiding an alleged espionage effort against Tehran.” [7]

As the modern-day Russian interference probe led by the special counsel Robert Mueller is uncovering more evidence, clues, facts, and indictments, a certain pattern in modern Russian strategic thinking and application of The Gerasimov Doctrine are now in plain view. First, the biggest difference in the usage of agents of influence in the West between the Soviet-era Russian efforts and today is the sophisticated use of technology, including active usage of Internet and social media such as Twitter for the direct and public influencing of key thinkers and decision makers, and Facebook for influencing of the masses.

Second, is the reliance on journalists and reporters, by improving formerly clumsy pro-Russian media to look and feel like more sophisticated Western Media. Prime example of this strategy is Russia Today (RT) headed by Margarita Simonyan, and its attractive-looking speaking representatives-heads like Gayane Chichakyan who attends daily press briefings at the State Department and would constantly provoke the State’s spokespersons. Although, there are numerous less obvious examples (incidentally, both RT ladies are ethnically Armenian, as are many other “Russian” agents of influence). Third, is establishing business relations with top politicians, preferably as an employee inside their company to have the most access and trust.

Certainly, some of the more common methods are also employed – such as by RT’s Margarita Simonyan paying now-indicted Gen. Michael Flynn to fly to Moscow for a dinner honoring RT while sitting next to Vladimir Putin. [8]

While these photos have been thoroughly dissected in the media, and Flynn-Simonyan connection established, one other influential guest of honor was never identified – Artur Chilingarov, ethnically Armenian Vice Speaker of Russian Duma whom Putin bestowed “Hero of Russia” order. He can be seen directly behind Putin, drinking, in the now iconic photo. [9] One can see Mr. Chilingarov on a photo stock provided by ‘alamy’ with Putin from 2007. [10]

A foreign agent turned into an independent reporter, Emil Sanamyan, a dual U.S. and Armenian citizen, has been an active Twitter warrior for years, freelancing as a multilingual reporter and expert for several publications, both Armenian-funded and otherwise, ranging from the Armenian Reporter to the Jane’s defense publication, on the U.S., NATO, Russia, Armenia, and the Caucasus Region, with a focus on military, defense, geopolitical and strategic relations. While billing himself as a reporter, he held numerous political positions such as the Executive Director of the Americans for Artsakh (AFA), a political action lobbying organization for the Armenian government and its Russian-backed military in 2006-2007. That organization was established to bring legitimacy to the war crimes and illegal occupation by the Russian-backed Armenian military that has been ruthlessly perpetrated (long before Ukraine and Georgia, the Russian government has used Armenian soldiers to occupy Azerbaijan’s sovereign territory, arrest development and derail a Pro-Western course of Azerbaijan). From 2000 until 2006, Sanamyan was a Research Officer at the Armenian Assembly of America (AAA), the preeminent Armenian lobbying group in Washington DC. More importantly, from 1998 to 2000 he worked in the so-called “Office of the Nagorno Karabakh Republic in the United States” (ONKR), which is a Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) lobbying group officially registered with the U.S. Department of Justice as a foreign agent (it should be noted that for some time the ONKR office was housed inside AAA’s office in Washington DC).

In that foreign agent office, Emil Sanamyan was in charge of information warfare and propaganda as “Director of the NKR Public Affairs Office” as his job title was memorialized in a 2013 book by Routledge. [11]

In a 2009 statement, Vardan Barseghian, the self-styled “NKR Deputy Foreign Minister” – basically, a high-level Armenian diplomat who was a registered 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.” [12]

Another “alumni” of the FARA-registered foreign agent of ONKR has been Aram Avetisyan – with a diplomatic rank of “counselor” as he was listed on his business card. Long after FARA-registered ONKR moved out from AAA’s office, he continued to feel at home over there and conducted meetings with AAA’s top leadership, such as in December 2015. [13]

In spite of that, as of September 2016, Aram Avetisyan was able to become an employee of the Voice of America – the U.S. government news agency that is funded by Congress and officially represents the views of the U.S. government in the countries to which it broadcasts. All aforementioned years of work as a foreign agent within ONKR do not appear on his resume. [14]

All of these jobs that Sanamyan, Avetisyan, and others held, spanning many years, required ongoing and close coordination with the Armenian government, as well as trips to the region (in the case of Sanamyan – even his lavish wedding was held in the Armenian-occupied territories of Azerbaijan). The Armenian government, of course, has a unique and a highly unusual formal relationship with Russian government on coordination of foreign policy vis-à-vis the U.S. as analyzed in a recent article published by Foreign Policy News. [15]

Meanwhile, Armenian government since its formal independence from Soviet Russia and until today, remains as aptly dubbed by Putin’s officials, the Russian outpost in the Caucasus. The current hopes of Western countries that Armenia would pivot away from Russia after the velvet revolution that installed Nikol Pashinyan as the new Prime-Minister of Armenia and ousted military dictatorship of Serzh Sargsyan – the latter was, nevertheless, able to meet with President Trump thanks to the efforts of his lobby [16] – appears to be wishful thinking. Vladimir Putin was the first to congratulate Pashinyan with the new position [17], while Pashinyan declared: “We consider Russia as a strategic ally; our movement does not create threats for this. If I am elected [as the prime minister], Armenia will remain a member of the Eurasian Economic Union and the Collective Security Treaty Organization.” [18]

Intriguingly, Mr. Sanamyan, himself a Russian speaker and born in the Soviet Union, is married to Oksana Chernyaeva, an ethnic Russian. In 2017, the couple purchased a home in Bethesda and in earlier years had acquired houses in Arlington and Alexandria. Oksana’s biography includes studies of high school in Sweden (hence, she speaks Swedish, in addition to Spanish, English and, of course, her native Russian), getting her undergraduate in business at Cass in London, UK (a city of choice for Russian oligarchy), and her master’s degree in project management from George Washington University. As Cass’ alumni, Oksana’s financial contribution to the university landed her in a “Major Donors and Sponsors” annual report for 2012. [19]

While a student, Oksana collaborated on a research book led by an Iranian-born professor entitled: “Economic Sanctions: Examining their philosophy and efficacy.” [20] Unsurprisingly, the carefully-written research geared at academics opines that U.S. sanctions against Iran have been ineffective and thus perhaps unnecessary.

However, it is not so much Oksana’s education and fluency in languages that make an impression to the reader, as her work history, since she worked for some of the largest U.S. military and government contractors – apart from a four year stretch with an obscure construction company named Georgetown Restoration Inc. – such as at the Lockheed Martin, the construction giant AECOM, and currently at Lend Lease Construction (formerly known as Bovis Lend Lease), one of the largest international construction companies in the world.

The latter group became famous in the U.S. for two things: largest construction fraud settlement in New York City’s history and ripping off minority-owned businesses, for which it was fined US$56 million [21], and for this distinction: “Lend Lease is one of Donald Trump’s favorite building partners, responsible for the Trump Tower buildings in New York, Washington and Chicago”. [22]

The last construction project that Lend Lease managed for Mr. Trump was the Trump Hotel in Washington DC – where multiple subcontractors alleged not to be paid and filed multiple complaints that are worth over five million USD in 2016. [23] Lend Lease was even named as a defendant on a lawsuit by Freestate Electrical, a subcontractor in the Trump Hotel. [24]

While such a resume [25] is not entirely unusual in Washington DC – apart from the fact that both husband and wife as naturalized citizens from Soviet Russia have an ability, are keen to stay close to the U.S. defense establishment – there is another job that does raise some eyebrows: as a Senior Project Manager at Trump Old Post Office LLC for two years from May 2014 through May 2016. She even had an email address (… [26]

The Trump Old Post Office LLC is part of the Trump Organization. President Donald J. Trump was an officer of the limited liability company until 2/3/2017, when he resigned, and Donald Trump Jr., his son, became president of the LLC. [27] In terms of beneficiary membership, Trump Old Post Office LLC also includes Ivanka Trump and Eric Trump. [28]

Working for Trump in that senior capacity Oksana became a trusted manager with access to the Trump family. Leaving Trump Old Post Office LLC for Lend Lease in May 2016 was mostly a formality – since Lend Lease was the general contractor for the Trump Hotel in Washington DC (owned by Trump Old Post Office LLC), which opened in September 2016. The hotel, of course, became part of the presidential campaign’s theme – an example of how inefficient the U. S. government is; indeed a real estate developer came in and saved the days by opening the hotel ahead of time, before anticipated schedule and under budget.

Armenian lobby’s connections with Trump campaign are numerous. From Facebook [29] and Twitter [30] pages, established by supporters with names like ArmeniansForTrump, to appeals from registered Republican and highly opinionated Armenian newspaper editor Harut Sassounian (republished on ANCA’s website).[31]

ANCA’s Aram Hamparian warmly congratulated Trump on his election of November 9, 2016: “We congratulate Donald Trump on his victory, commend Secretary Clinton on a hard-fought campaign, and thank Armenian American voters who went to the polls in record numbers to back federal, state, and local candidates who champion issues of special concern to our community. We look forward to getting to work right away in engaging with the Trump Administration and the incoming Congress to make progress on the full range of the Armenian American community’s public policy priorities.” [32]

Another Armenian political operative deep inside the Trump White House that deserves a special mention – Andy Surabian, who is described as “Steve Bannon’s political adviser in the Trump administration and a campaign veteran, has decided to leave the White House. He will become a senior adviser to “Great America Alliance,” the allied group to “Great America PAC” – is a major pro-Trump super-PAC” [33], Steve Bannon provided a more colorful, if disconcerting, description on him: “During the campaign, Bannon would describe Surabian and his war room team with words like: “They’re f***ing killers. … These are my psychos who do all this s***. They don’t sleep. They don’t care.”” [34]

Perhaps the most influential and high-ranking Armenian Diaspora member and registered lobbyist associated with the Trump campaign was Keith Nahigian, who was tapped to head Trump’s transition team in 2017. [35] Before jumping on the Trump bandwagon in 2016 as a senior adviser to candidate Trump, Keith and his brother Ken have been working closely with former co-chairman of the Congressional Armenian Caucus, Congressman Robert Dold. [36]

The Armenian lobby with access to President Trump also includes flamboyant representatives like Danny Tarkanian who ran for U.S. Senate and then Congress from Nevada – someone who emphasizes being endorsed simultaneously by Donald Trump and ANCA. [37]

Of course the mentioning of Armenian lobby network would certainly be incomplete without including the colorful, and extremely odd, Kim Kardashian – the home-porn-turned-Twitter lobbyist who has met Trump on numerous occasions [38] – most recently in May 2018. [39]

While some are unconscious actors that serve as “candy” to deflect attention, others do the real work behind the scenes. These extensive and deep links to the incumbent inexperienced president and his campaign create potential national security implications and deserve scrutiny to ensure that Putin’s ongoing meddling into the U. S. Homeland would crumble and miserably fail.



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