The Center for the National Interest is a think tank headquartered in D.C. with revenue of well over $1 million and over 20 full time staffers. Dubbing itself “America’s Voice for Strategic Realism,” its self-descriptor goes,
“The Center for the National Interest seeks to stimulate debate, promote public understanding of U.S. foreign policy and international affairs, and define principled yet pragmatic policies to advance America's national interest in the complex world of the twenty-first century. “
Since 2011, the Center has hosted over 81 C-SPAN programs, and claiming to be “non-partisan”, it is syndicated on mainstream news platforms such as Yahoo! News and Google News under its prolific magazine, the “National Interest”, prominent Republicans such as Grover Norquist and Henry Kissinger sit on its board, it has hosted dinners featuring Defense Secretary James Mattis and Rand Paul, and it regularly hosts roundtable discussions of foreign policy experts.
But is the Center for the National Interest really looking out for America’s interests, or is it a backdoor for the Russian government into the heart of the U.S. security establishment?
The head of the Center for the National Interest is Dimitri K. Simes, a graduate of Moscow State University (1967) and former deputy secretary of the Young Leninist League who defected to the U.S. in 1973 and became close with former president Richard Nixon. At the end of his life, Nixon wanted to establish a realistic think tank, called the “Nixon Center for Peace and Freedom”, and in 1994 he turned to Simes to run it.
But by 2011, the Nixon family had to cut relations with the Center for the National Interest. Simes had grown too close with Russian president Vladimir Putin. Write Politico at the time:
* “To the Republican stalwarts, family members, and former political aides who sit on the Foundation board, however, the Center and – particularly — its longtime president, Dimitri Simes, had become nothing less than an embarrassment to the Nixon family name. Simes, an imposing eminence of Russia policy, was – in their view — offering apologies for Russian autocrat Vladimir Putin and even attacking their party’s presidential candidate, John McCain, for his denunciations of Russia’s invasion of Georgia.”
* Indeed, according to Ryan Lizza “How Jared Kushner helped the Russians get inside access to the Trump Campaign” 2016, Dimitri Simes is the one who introduced Jared Kushner to Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak, at an event hosted by “The National Interest”.
* For Kislyak, it was clearly an important moment. The Russian Ambassador represents a country whose intelligence services had hacked their way into the Democratic National Committee’s networks ten months earlier and hacked the e-mail account of John Podesta, Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman, the previous month. At Trump’s speech, Kislyak was honored with an invitation to the reception and a front-row seat. Trump’s speech itself extended an olive branch to Vladimir Putin, calling for “improved relations with Russia” and an effort to “make a deal that’s great” for “America, but also good for Russia.”
* Despite claiming to be “non-partisan”, the “Center for National Interest” in 2016 fired an employee for questioning its ties to Donald Trump.
The employee, a junior fellow named Alexander Kirss, sharply rebuked the think tank for inviting Trump to explain his foreign-policy platform in an April 27 event at Washington’s Mayflower Hotel.
“Whether intended as an endorsement or not, the Center’s invitation is tantamount to tacit, if not explicit, approval of Trump’s positions,” Kirss wrote in a Monday column for the website War on the Rocks.” Kirss was sacked the same time.
* In, 2015 the “National Interest” published an article by a known Russian government spy:
In July 2015, the magazine published an article by Maria Butina advocating improved relations between the Russian Federation and a future US Republican Presidential administration. In 2018, Butina was arrested by the FBI and charged with conspiring to act as an unregistered Russian agent.
Despite Butina being caught, similar articles still appear on the National Interest's website.
It also publishes articles minimizing the impact of Russia's meddling in the U.S. election.
* According to a 2014 report, “Rand Paul’s Russian Connection”, the advisory council of the “National Interest”, the center’s chief publication, by then included Alexey Pushkov, a Russian Duma official recently targeted for sanctions by the U.S. government in response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
Pushkov has come under fire for claiming that the Bush administration orchestrated the September 11 attacks and for blaming the 2013 Navy Yard shooting on "American exceptionalism."
* Following the Putin government’s crackdown on independent Russian news outlet MediaMost in 2000, Simes mounted a vigorous defense of the Kremlin. He criticized the ousted owner of MediaMost as a corrupt oligarch who was pushing a "propaganda campaign," and hosted a meeting with one of the Kremlin-allied oil tycoons who aided the government takeover of the news outlet.
His comments prompted an angry letter from the late U.S. Ambassador to Russia Robert Strauss.
"Dear Dimitri: You ought to be ashamed of yourself," wrote Strauss in a letter on Apr. 20, 2001, as reported by the Times Union. "Irresponsible statements attributed to you … do a disservice to the new administration, the directors of The Nixon Center and many distinguished members of the American press.
However, Simes continued to appear on MediaMost years after the government takeover.
* In 2005 the Russian-American newspaper Kommersant reported that Simes had met with Kremlin allies to discuss forming a Russian-funded think tank. The Nixon Center denied the story, but a Russian-backed think tank the Orwellian-named “Institute for Democracy and Cooperation” was created and Andranik Migranyan, an advisor to the Russian government was appointed its head. Mirgranyan and the “Center for the National Interest” held a joint press conference in February 2014 in which he defended Russia’s actions in Ukraine.
* According to Zarina Zabrisky, in 2013, Simes attended the Valdai International Discussion Club alongside Putin, where both took part in a two-hour panel discussion. Other participants were Germany’s former defense minister and prime ministers of France and Italy. It is highly unusual a mere think tank boss to be invited to such an event.
* Putin meets Valdai Club’s participants every year since 2004. Among many other Kremlin officials attending Valdai meetings are Dmitry Medvedev, Prime Minister; Sergei Ivanov, Chief of Staff of the Presidential Executive Office; Sergei Lavrov, Minister of Foreign Affairs; Sergei Shoigu, Defense Minister and more. However, the meetings are also attended by the Russian oligarchs and figures strategically important to the Kremlin.