By Vladimir Frolov

Russia Profile Weekly
April 28, 2006

Contributors: Jim Jatras, Anthony T. Salvia, Andrei Zagorski, Sergei Shishkarev

A lot has been written about the need for Russia to set up an effective lobbying operation in the United States to protect and promote Russia’s interests, strengthen economic, political and humanitarian ties with the United States, and neutralize media attacks by Russia-bashers.

Many a plan has been developed, only to founder before coming to fruition. Russia’s leadership always hesitated committing significant financial resources to the lobbying effort in the United States, failing to understand how that country’s political process worked and how it could and should be influenced to the advantage of Russia’s interests.

This is no longer the case. Last Friday, the daily newspaper Kommersant reported in a front-page story that the Kremlin had finally become serious about getting its lobbying act together. In January 2006, President Vladimir Putin issued secret orders to the government to develop proposals to set up an effective mechanism of lobbying Russia’s strategic political and economic interests in the United States.

The government’s plan appears to be centered on turning the Russia-U.S. Business Council (RUSBC) into a flagship structure for Russia’s lobbying in the United States. The long-term strategy is even more ambitious: to build up RUSBC into a more universal tool for promoting and expanding Russia’s soft power in different countries, not unlike the role performed by the former U.S. Agency for International Development.

The Russia-U.S. Business Council is a relatively obscure sister organization of the U.S.-Russia Business Council, a Washington-based business group set up in 1992 to promote U.S.-Russia economic cooperation and to defend U.S. business interests in Russia. Whereas the USRBC was quite successful in achieving its objectives, the RUSBC, established in 2001, has been far less productive. With the exception of a few conferences and cocktail parties, it has not been an effective lobbying instrument for Russia in the United States.

It is rumored that the Kremlin realized the need to act by watching how Group Menatep’s owners outperformed Russian governmental agencies in presenting their side of the Yukos story to American media outlets. To this, of course, we have to add Moscow’s beating in the western media over the new NGO law and last year’s gas crisis with Ukraine. During the episode with Ukraine, Russia failed to present its case properly despite legitimate and convincing arguments supporting its side, and emerged again in the view of the public as a “totalitarian dictatorship” and an international bully.

The new plan calls for beefing up RUSBC with high-level government officials. Sergei Prihodko, an assistant to the president on foreign policy, will become a co-chairman, replacing Yuli Vorontsov, the current chairman, a venerable Russian diplomat and former ambassador to Washington. Sergei Sobyanin, the presidential chief of staff, and his deputy, Vladislav Surkov, together with Putin’s two possible successors ¬ First Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev and Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov ¬ will sit on the council’s board of trustees. Some well-known Russian cultural and media personalities, like famous television and radio anchor Vladimir Solovyev, movie director Nikita Mikhalkov and violist Yury Bashmet will also join the board.

The council will operate in the United States through the U.S. offices of the Russian law firm Egorov, Puginski, Afanasev and Partners, which appears to allow the council some additional leeway in negotiating the restrictions set up by the U.S. Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA). The Russian law firm will handle all the contracts concluded on the council’s behalf with U.S. lobbying firms and media strategists. The choice of a law firm appears to have been made in traditional Russian manner ¬ the firm’s principal partner, Nikolai Egorov, went to law school with Putin in St. Petersburg.

The Kremlin is also mobilizing substantial financial support for the group’s activities by “suggesting” that major Russian companies (Gazprom, Rosneft, Interros, RusAl, Seversrtal-Group, TNK-BP, Aeroflot, Rosoboronexport and even television channels Rossiya and Channel One) join the council and “support its activities,” with the expected contributions of as much as $50 million. In addition, the Finance Ministry will also underwrite the Council’s work.

All of this suggests that the Kremlin is serious this time around and will try to do something on the ground in the United States. Will the effort bear fruit? Is the chosen venue ¬ a business interests group ¬ the right one to achieve the Kremlin’s objectives of being heard ¬ and heard right ¬ in Washington? How will this effort be perceived in the United States? Will it be any different from earlier moves, such as the establishment of the English-language Russia Today television channel? What should Russia’s immediate lobbying priorities in the United States be? Can there be such a thing as a Russian lobby in America?

Jim Jatras, Senior Partner, Venable LLP, Washington DC:

An American “Russia lobby” is not only possible, but compelling. It is clear to anyone paying attention in Washington that there has been a sustained campaign in the leading American media outlets (The New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal and others) against Russia in general and the Putin administration in particular. The overall theme is that President Putin is imposing a Soviet-style or even a Stalinist dictatorship.

The major sub-themes are (1) the alleged persecution of the oligarchs, depicted as the Kremlin’s repression of democracy and free enterprise; (2) the war in Chechnya, universally presented as “brutal,” if not genocidal; and (3) Russia’s supposedly “imperial” ambitions in its “near abroad.”

These views also resonate in think tanks and, most dangerously, on both sides of the aisle in Congress, as well as in some parts of the current presidential administration. It is a welcome development to see Moscow’s apparent awareness that this campaign is directed not only against the Putin administration, but against Russia as a state and a regional power.

While the anti-Russia lobby in the United States is powerful and persistent, it can indeed be offset with a counter-lobby on Russia’s behalf. The overall theme of a pro-Russia lobby would be to make the case for a positive U.S. attitude toward Russia in light of America’s broader global priorities. Among the sub-themes, tailored for consumption by American opinion-leaders, would be the following:

1) The need for a sustained U.S.-Russian strategic cooperation on global terrorism and the truth about the war in Chechnya as a theater of jihadist ambitions in the “Greater Middle East” (i.e., the Caucasus, Central and South Asia, and the Balkans);

2) The lasting benefits of U.S.-Russia economic cooperation, especially in the energy sector, including a reduction of American dependence on Middle Eastern petroleum;

3) An accurate depiction of the Kremlin’s effort to create a rule-of-law state and to improve the business climate, showing the success of Russian firms that play by the rules.

This effort should be directed at the opinion of the American elite, both official (the Bush Administration, the Congress) and public (media, business, academia, think tanks). It should also include a media component in the form of a public relations campaign.

In addition to a positive, pro-Russian orientation, the effort requires a professional lobbying team in Washington that is fully capable of dealing with both parties in the executive and the legislative branches. Perhaps most importantly, the Russia lobby will have to “Americanize” its message, to show why the growing anti-Russia skew of American policy is bad for the United States.

It is understandable that the formal engagement would be not by the Russian government, but by a group of Russian companies whose interests may suffer from a downturn in U.S.-Russia relations. However, no one should assume that FARA complications will therefore be avoided. The U.S. Justice Department, not to mention the anti-Russia lobby, is likely to go over this one with a fine-toothed comb. The control and oversight on the part of the Kremlin will be inferred.

Anthony T. Salvia, former Director of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s Moscow Programming Center:

The case for Russia’s progress since the collapse of communism and for America seeing Russia as a suitable strategic partner is hugely compelling. Although there are powerful and well-funded groups in Washington whose stock in trade is to sound a steady anti-Russian drum beat (much to the detriment of U.S. interests, in my view), there is no organized, indigenous American effort to make the case for U.S.-Russia partnership in Congress and in the media. The Soviet Union had more effective advocates in the United States than the Russian Federation has ever had. It is good news if the Kommersant piece is accurate, and the Kremlin is determined finally to do something about the current state of affairs.

The Kremlin and/or its intermediaries would be well-advised to take the time to seek out the right people to work with in Washington. K Street is awash in hired guns capable of thoroughly professional work, but who would be just as content to work for Russia’s enemies as for its friends if the price were right.

What will make or break this Kremlin initiative is whether the firm that is engaged is going to act out of genuine love for and deep knowledge of Russia. If not, the Kremlin should call the whole thing off and save itself a bunch of money.

It may sound strange to speak of genuine love of Russia but, in the end, Russia is a cause and a crusade and a thing that you believe in as much as it is anything else. Whichever firm is engaged, it will surely take plenty of hits from the well-organized and richly endowed anti-Russia lobby. They will have to enter the fray with light hearts and thick skins and the courage of their convictions. The Kremlin should not despair; such people do exist, even on K Street!

They will come in for a hailstorm of criticism as they argue that the current Russian government, for all its shortcomings, is the best one Russia has known since the death of Stolypin. Also, in resisting Islamic fundamentalism on its own soil, Russia is fighting the good fight and deserves Western support. And, when America moves to support independence for Kosovo, it will have to be prepared to make the case that Russia would be morally and legally justified in taking similar steps towards the incorporation of South Ossetia and Abkhazia into the Russian Federation.

Above all, they will have to argue effectively against the view ¬ prevalent among advocates of a benevolent U.S. global hegemony ¬ that Washington should permit Russia to play one of only two possible roles in world affairs: that of an adversary or that of a satellite. They will have to build support for acceptance of Russia as a stable and prosperous state with its own interests that sometimes coincide with America’s own concerns and sometimes diverge from them. After all, that is also the case with other states with which Washington maintains normal and fruitful relations, such as the United Kingdom, France, China, and India. They will have to be completely indifferent to the prospect of never being able to eat lunch in Washington again.

Can this effort succeed? Yes. The people who can pull it off exist, and the time is right. The chickens of benevolent U.S. global hegemony are coming home to roost. The era of a new U.S. foreign policy is upon us. This policy will be based on a more restrictive understanding of what constitutes the national interests, while not ignoring the moral purpose of the United States in the world.

As the principal divide in world affairs becomes ever more obviously North-South, the major powers of the extended European family of the Northern Hemisphere will have added incentive to overcome divisions that date back to Roman times. The integrity of European civilization will depend on it and, here, Russia is of vital strategic importance, an importance that will only grow as China and Islam continue to rise.

Andrei Zagorski, Associate Professor, MGIMO University:

Promoting the image of your country abroad is a legitimate practice. Many countries pursue a proactive policy to this effect. Clearly, Russia needs to improve its image in the United States, and in the West in general. Russia’s reputation has deteriorated over the past few years, so it is not surprising that Moscow is ready to expend effort and money to repair it.

The reported RUSBC project is not the first such initiative over the last five years. Why haven’t the previous efforts worked out? Was it because they have not yet had the time to evolve, or because too few resources have been invested? Or is it just about picking the right people? Will using a business group as a vehicle make a difference?

Apparently, the problem is not the people or the money. The problem lies in an erroneous assumption in the Kremlin’s underlying approach to mending its image abroad.

The Kremlin’s approach is based on the assumptions of an information war. This takes into account the predominantly negative perception in the West of the Kremlin’s policies. It results from the information warfare against Russia that is organized by enemies both outside and inside the country. In response, Moscow seeks to construct a positive image by pouring money into advertising its achievements and seeking to emphasize the positive trends ¬ economic growth and political stability above all. Would this approach work, with or without the RUSBC?

It would succeed in a highly uncompetitive media environment. It worked well under conditions of an informational monopoly within the Soviet Union, and it works in today’s Russia after an effective competition of political opinions in the relevant media has been reduced. In the Soviet times, it did not succeed in the West, despite the investment of money, intellect and energy into the effort. It sustained groups of friends of the Soviet Union, but was unable to challenge the basic perception of the country in the West. To make it work, the Kremlin would have to eliminate the competition.

In the recent past, we have witnessed moments of profound improvements to Moscow’s image. The early 1990s boosted the appreciation of a country that rid itself of communist rule. The first years of Putin’s administration, too, resulted in a significant appreciation of Russia as a partner in the anti-terror coalition.

Public opinion is not about facts and figures, nor is it about right or wrong. It is about how the broader public sees and feels about you. The negative public discourse in the West reflects the feeling that things in Russia are going in the wrong direction. A proactive, well-funded and intellectually impressive information campaign will not suffice to reverse this trend unless it is supported by different dynamics in Russia’s policies ¬ different enough to allow the country to send a different message to the outside world.

Sergey Shishkarev, Deputy Chairman, Committee on Energy, Transportation and Communications, the Russian State Duma (United Russia):

I have noticed that efforts to improve Russia’s image in the West rarely advance beyond the warm-up media campaign in their favor, and usually yield results far too negligible to be publicized. The effort that has made the greatest progress so far is the Russia Today television channel, which, although imperfect, is making progress and winning an audience in the West.

There were multiple attempts at setting up a lobbying and media operation in the United States in 2001 and 2002. Most oligarchic business groups at the time hired such Washington lobbying powerhouses as Akin, Strauss & Gump, ABCO, and Baker & Botts. It should be noted that Mikhail Khodorkovsky’s considerable investment in the U.S. lobbying machine was intended initially as a service to the Kremlin, and only secondarily as a weapon of self-defense.

The latest proposal to work through Russia-U.S. Business Council makes sense ¬ after all, it is in the interests of Russia’s big business to see the country widely respected internationally, particularly in the United States. But the organization ¬ RUSBC ¬ will require a substantial overhaul, not just a facelift. It has been languishing since its creation and is not known for any breathtaking successes in promoting Russia’s interests in the United States. Its most daring decision was to name Dmitri Yakushkin as its president. He is a former Kremlin spokesmen and the son of a famous Soviet intelligence officer who had a highly successful record of spy operations against the United States in the 1970s and early 1980s.

This time around, the Kremlin simply has to hire professional help in Washington to direct its lobbying effort. It is naive to expect, as was the case with Moscow in the 1990s, that the Russian diaspora abroad will act on behalf of the Russian state to defend its interests. Russia will have to gain some media savvy to be able to play by the rules in Washington, engaging in fierce media battles to get its message across.

Nobody will help it do this. Moscow will also have to fund research in Washington think tanks to be able to change the nature and the direction of the academic debate in that country. Academics tend to become an integral part of the U.S. media battles. Reports that RusAl was looking to fund research activities of a well-known Washington institution served as an indicator that the Russian state is serious about changing its perceptions in the West.

But there are limits to what a professional lobbying team can achieve in changing public attitudes.

What Russia needs most is not hiring an expensive U.S. law firm ¬ anyone with money can do this, just ask Khodorkovsky ¬ but building grass-roots support for itself. In other words, Russia needs a Political Action Committee, a structure that allows it to build a broad public support for its actions and policies. The America-Israel Public Affairs Committee is an example of such a highly successful lobbying and public relations operation for promoting the interests of a foreign government in Washington.