The Kremlin’s Washington lobbyists are pros and amateurs.
Recently, a regiment of Kremlin lobbyists arrived in Washington. Two senators — Trent Lott, the former Republican Senate majority leader who left the Senate in 2007, and Democrat John Breaux, who left the Senate in 2005 — now represent the interests of Gazprombank in the U.S. Gazprombank, the third largest bank in Russia, came under sanctions last July after President Obama’s executive order 13662. In correspondence with the requirements of the Lobbying Disclosure Act of 1995, the pair of ex-senators presented the registration statement of the lobbying firm Squire Patton Boggs to Congress.
Lott and Breaux, both experienced lobbyists, worked last year for former Democratic Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, promoting the interests of the television industry connected to medicine and health care, and also having represented the interests of the telecom company AT&T in the proposed merger with T-Mobile.
Nothing Personal, it’s Just Business
According to The Washington Post, Gazprombank turned to the Russian government with a request for financial assistance in connection to Western sanctions. Nevertheless, at the same time the bank hired the former senators and their PR firm, and in the second half of 2013 paid a second lobbying company, Ketchum, $3.7 million (according to the civic organization ProPublica, which made public all the financial accounting of the Kremlin and Gazprom’s public relations officials).
These documents are required to be presented to the Department of Justice and to Congress by the Foreign Agents Registration Act, a law concerning the registration of foreign agents that passed all the way back in 1938. The law prescribes that all lobbying activities be revealed — that lobbying should be open and transparent to the public sphere. Therefore, we know that from 2006-2012 alone, Gazprom paid Ketchum $17 million. Yet another $25 million was received by PR men from the Russian government. As reported by Reuters, with a link to the document received by the Department of Justice, in 2007 Time magazine named Vladimir Putin “man of the year,” thanks to the efforts of Ketchum. The documents described repeated meetings of lobbyists with employees at the magazine. Workers at the lobbying firm met with State Department officials, attempting to obtain a “more moderate approach” on the question of human rights violations in Russia, and they communicated with American journalists who were writing about these issues. In addition, according to Ketchum’s records, their officials supply materials for the site ModernRussia.com (now ThinkRussia.com).
Ketchum’s crowning effort on the Russian front might have been the publication of an article by Vladimir Putin in the opinion section of The New York Times in 2013, in which, as journalist Andy Sullivan remarks, the Russian leader presented himself as a peacemaker in Syria and lectured America about how not to act in the international arena. Putin’s article, which “insulted” House Speaker John Boehner, was forwarded to The New York Times by officials from Ketchum. The White House also reacted to the publication, claiming that Putin was taking advantage of media freedoms in America that are unavailable in Russia.
Russia’s actions in the Crimea and also in Eastern Ukraine have forced American journalists to once again examine the question of who in the U.S. is receiving payment from Putin. Several investigative articles have been published on this topic.
As was made clear, Ketchum, actively pushing a campaign to promote the Sochi Olympics last year, distributed a press release from Gazprom and the Russian Kontinental Hockey League. They also hired a subcontractor, Alston & Bird, which has the most direct relations with even more veterans of American politics: former Republican Senator and presidential candidate Bob Dole and former Democratic Rep. Earl Pomeroy. This company received $100,000 from the Russian government in the first half of 2013. Yet another of Ketchum’s subcontractors, Venable, received $168,000 from Gazprom during the same period. Former Democratic Rep. Bart Stupak works under Venable’s wing, with a salary of $28,000 per month, plus traveling expenses.
Alston & Bird’s task, as formulated by them in the registration document submitted to the Department of Justice, is as follows: “[To] gather information and provide advice and analysis on various areas of international politics, and U.S. and foreign economic policy, which affect the bilateral U.S.-Russian relationship.”
Luke O’Brien, a journalist for the publication Politico, attempted to analyze just how effective Russia’s PR firms are in the U.S. “Russia is viewed less favorably today than in 2006, when its relationship with Ketchum began,” observed O’Brien. “Spin must accord in some measure with reality to be effective. And when a country uses force to reclaim former territories, stamps out dissent at home and does business with banana republic levels of corruption, reality does not allow much in the way of successful spin. One lobbyist who worked for the Russians here — and didn’t want to be named for fear of professional backlash — crudely likened his role to ‘trying to polish a turd.’”
Ketchum’s aforementioned subcontracting firms, according to the documents, have done very little work at all in exchange for their fees, which are paid by Russian taxpayers, by the way (and how else could the Russian Federation pay for them?). The firm Alston & Bird “has, to date, reported only one instance of political outreach, when it contacted assistants of three American officials about the visit of a Russian deputy minister.” From Nov. 1, 2010 to April 30, 2014, the firm Venable “sent out seven emails, had four meetings, made two phone calls and had two teleconferences,” O’Brien writes in the Politico article.
Ketchum, on the Way Out
It is possible that Russia will soon be seeking new lobbyists, O’Brien observes. Last year the contract with Ketchum was discontinued. Contract work with the Kremlin “is now little more than sinecure,” writes O’Brien. In a recent statement to Politico Magazine, Ketchum wrote: “Given the current geopolitical environment, this is a challenging time to promote economic development for Russia, and as a result we do not have any activity planned in the U.S.”
However, one’s loss is another’s gain. For example, Squire Patton Boggs is lobbying for the cancellation of sanctions against their client, Gazprombank. Last August, the open joint-stock company Novatech hired Washington-based lobbying firm Qorvis to promote their interests in the White House and in Congress, paying $280,000 for the service.
However, the development of the situation in Ukraine will more likely lead to the further strengthening of the American sanctions regime. President Obama mentioned this during his visit to India, as did Vice President Biden during his meeting with Ukrainian President Poroshenko. The broadening of sanctions against Russia could lead to a prohibition of activities by pro-Russian lobbyists. For now, though, “we’re not there yet,” observes Rob Kelner, chairman of the firm Covington & Burlington.
On the other hand, the crisis in Crimea has stirred up lobbyists connected to the American military, energy and aerospace sectors. They owe Putin “a big thank you,” according to Bloomberg News. Lobbyists do not miss a chance to turn any crisis to their own advantage. Lobbyists and so-called “special interest groups” have raised questions around Ukraine, about the export of American energy resources to Ukraine and to Europe in general, about reducing the dependence on Russian rockets and rocket launchers, and other questions that have now become urgent. In the Bloomberg article, Burdett Loomis, professor of political science at the University of Kansas, said that “there’s a fair amount of self-interest, and a lot of that self-interest is cloaked in good public policy for the United States or for the Ukrainian people. You’ve got a wave coming up, and in a sense [lobbyists are] surfing that wave.”
According to the Center for Responsive Politics, more than 300 former members of Congress work as lobbyists. And promoting a positive image of Russia is becoming more and more difficult for them. But there are those in the U.S. Congress who support President Putin from the bottom of their hearts.
Behold, for example, Republican Rep. from California Dana Rohrabacher, who voted last March against legislation to introduce sanctions against Russian and render assistance to Ukraine. A longtime admirer of Vladimir Putin, he became a hero to several notable America media publications. Sixteen Republicans voted against the delivery of financial assistance to Kiev, but their complaint was related to using the money of American taxpayers. But Rohrabacher and Florida Democratic Rep. Alan Grayson supported the Kremlin “ideologically.” Grayson, referring to the annexation of Crimea, declared at the hearings: “We should be pleased to see, pleased to see, when a virtually bloodless transfer of power establishes self determination for two million people somewhere in the world, anywhere in world.”
Thus, the ultra-left Grayson and the ultra-right Rohrabacher united in defense of Putin. The Republican congressman from California loves to reminisce about how in the mid-90’s he participated in a friendly arm-wrestling match. The match took place in one of the Irish pubs close to Congress. After several pints had been finished by the congressmen and the Russian delegation, among them the deputy governor of St. Petersburg, an argument broke out about who won the Cold War. A Russian guest proposed that the argument be settled in a match. Rohrabacher did not know that before him was the holder of a black belt in judo, and he lost. And “the strong, wiry deputy mayor from St. Petersburg named Vladimir Putin” made an indelible impression on him. Today Rohrabacher admits that Putin has “many flaws,” but he argues that the U.S. “should not be trying to antagonize him.”
Churches Are Full
In 2013, after the terrorist attack in Boston, Rohrabacher visited Russia. He was accompanied by U.S. Rep. Steve King and film star Steven Seagal. Details of the trip were not disclosed due to security concerns. On the eve of the visit, I conducted an interview with the congressman in his office in Congress. I recall the presence of a bottle of Russia vodka in the office.
“Americans didn’t know about the fact that Russia had had experience with radical Islamist terrorism over several decades, that Russia had experienced heavy losses fighting Islamist terrorism,” the congressman said. “Therefore, the goal of our visit is upon our return to help Americans understand that we and Russia share a common enemy. We all remember the events of Sep. 11, but in the Russian Federation thousands of people have perished at the hands of this general enemy. Let us finally forget about the Cold War and together fight radical Islam, which threatens everybody. And perhaps our countries should also unite forces to counter the growing general threat from China?”*
And today, after Crimea, Dana Rohrabacher (who, by the way, was a speechwriter for President Reagan) has not ceased supporting the Russian government. Thus, he declared during congressional hearings: “There have been dramatic reforms in Russia that are not being recognized by my colleagues. The churches are full. There are opposition papers being distributed on every newsstand in Russia. You’ve got people demonstrating in the parks. You’ve got a much different Russia than it was under communism, but you’ve got a lot of people who still can’t get over that communism has fallen.” In response to a question about [the group] Pussy Riot, [whose members were] beaten by Cossacks in Sochi, Rohrabacher only shrugged his shoulders. “Well, I don’t think that happens often,” he said. “There are lots of people demonstrating in the streets of Russia who are perfectly free to do so.”
Maybe, instead of a bottle of vodka, he ought to have sent a copy of the film “Leviathan” to his office — that is, if he is unable to visit the theater, where the Oscar-nominated filmed recently had a successful premiere in Washington.
Is it possible that in Putin, Rohrabacher sees something of his former beloved boss, Ronald Reagan? The difference is that Reagan achieved the fall of the Berlin Wall, the end of the Cold War and the weakening of international tension. What has Putin achieved? The exclusion of Russia from the Group of Eight (G-8), the worsening image of Russia and Russians across the world, the introduction of sanctions and Russia’s decline in all sorts of measures — corruption, media freedom and so on? I raise the question, because I know that there is an alternative point of view: getting up from one’s knees and the resumption of spiritual ties.
And Rohrabacher still loves to reminisce about leaving the White House when his work there was completed with “practically empty pockets, but with a thick notebook of necessary telephone numbers.”* And this helped him to very quickly make his own political career. Perhaps at the end of his tenure on Capitol Hill, the congressman will join the regiment of former colleagues-turned-lobbyists. But for now, one of Russia’s newspapers wrote that Rohrabacher’s statements are what Russia’s lobbyists in Washington can only dream about. That’s what we need!
*Editor’s note: The original quotation, accurately translated, could not be verified.
About this publication