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Pravda on the Potomac

Russian propaganda descends on Washington.

RAMZAN KADYROV, one would assume, is hardly the sort of man the Russian government would want to show off to a group of foreign dignitaries. The Moscow-appointed president of Chechnya has been accused of deploying his several-thousand-man-strong personal militia—since absorbed into the Chechen government—to torture and murder his opponents, and many suspect that he played a role in the 2006 murder of Anna Politkovskaya, an investigative journalist who exposed Russia’s brutal repression of separatists. Kadyrov, who inherited rule over the erstwhile rebel province after his father was assassinated in 2004, has praised Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin as a “beauty” who should be made “president for life.” And he is a pugilist, literally and rhetorically: A boxer, he invited Mike Tyson to visit the Chechen capital of Grozny in 2005, praising the convicted rapist and ear-eater’s “fists of iron.” “I will be killing as long as I live,” Kadyrov once boasted to a reporter.

Nonetheless, the 32-year-old Kadyrov was one of a number of Russian heavyweights with whom Western journalists, academics, and think-tank experts from around the world were invited to meet in September during a conference sponsored by the government’s official news service, RIA Novosti. The gathering, known as the “Valdai Discussion Club,” took place just a few weeks after Russia’s invasion of Georgia, and among those present were Jonathan Steele, onetime Moscow correspondent for The Guardian; Anatol Lieven of the New America Foundation; International Herald Tribune editorial page editor Serge Schmemann; and Robert Blackwill, a U.S. envoy to Iraq and ambassador to India under George W. Bush. The group was treated to meetings with Russian counterparts, a visit to Europe’s biggest mosque, tours of a Cossack village, a jaunt to the seaside resort town (and 2014 Winter Olympics site) of Sochi, and bull sessions with a series of high-level Russian officials, the highlight of which was a three-hour question-and-answer session with Prime Minister Putin himself.

The intent of the annual conference is to wine, dine, and flatter the overseas VIPs into a certain sympathy for the Russian perspective. But if the Kremlin had told Kadyrov, whose bushy red beard and thick physique lend him the demeanor of a high school wrestling coach, to tone it down, he hadn’t received the memo. “This guy’s a lunatic,” Marshall Goldman, a longtime adviser to American presidents on Russia and a regular participant in the Valdai Club meetings, says of the former separatist leader. Goldman reports that Kadyrov spoke of Chechnya as a “zoo” and its inhabitants as “animals,” and said his only regret was that he didn’t murder the rebel leader responsible for the bombing that killed his father “with his own hands.”

Kadyrov was hardly the only figure at the gathering to offer an unvarnished Russian take on current affairs. Also on the schedule were Sergei Bagapsh and Eduard Kokoity, the presidents, respectively, of the separatist Georgian provinces of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, both of whom, according to Goldman, called Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, a “drug addict” and “unbalanced mentally.” In the much-anticipated meeting with Putin, a participant asked about the use of “disproportionate force in South Ossetia,” to which the prime minister delivered a tirade in which he asked whether “it was necessary to wipe away the bloody sniffles,” and inquired, “What did you expect us to do? Brandish a penknife?”

The Valdai Club, inaugurated in 2004, is part of a multipronged effort by the Kremlin to improve American perceptions of Russia. These attitudes have suffered a precipitous decline over the past several years as Vladimir Putin transmogrified from the promising inheritor of Boris Yeltsin’s benign, if chaotic, rule into a bold autocrat. Reports on Russia in the Western press these days are mainly about the closure of independent TV stations and newspapers, violent crackdowns on journalists and human rights activists, and restraints on opposition parties so onerous that the country is effectively a one-party state. August’s war with Georgia only worsened Russia’s already damaged image.

The new p.r. effort attempts to undermine all that. Gone is the international brotherhood propaganda of old: Today’s p.r. offensive is flashy, sophisticated, and far more subtle—not to mention expensive—emphasizing the supposed commonality of Russo-American national interests. The Russians have begun purchasing the services of high-priced international consulting and lobbying firms and expanding the reach of their state-funded media abroad. You can see the effort conspicuously in the monthly insert in The Washington Post, “Russia Beyond the Headlines.” Produced by the government-owned newspaper Rossiiskaya Gazeta, it’s a bit of Pravda folded in behind the sports section of the Washington daily: One can do nothing but chuckle at headlines like “Georgian bombs rained on us” or “Diverse parties make for an interesting election.”

This from a country that has bullied its neighbors, cracked down on internal dissent, and dispatched naval ships to Cuban and Venezuelan waters. In its attempt to persuade a cynical American audience of its good intentions, Russia must sell a rotten apple by pretending it’s foie gras. It would be a worrying effort—if only the Russians did it better.

FOR THE PAST four years, Russia has been building its global media and public relations presence. In 2005, the government established Russia Today, a worldwide news channel that broadcasts in English, Arabic, and Spanish. With its often virulent anti-Americanism, worshipful portrayal of Russian leaders, and comical production values, the station, which has over 90 million viewers, can be relied upon to repeat Kremlin talking points. But while the station has pretensions to be a respected news outlet, it often can’t help but revive the pettiness that was a distinctive feature of Soviet-era propaganda. A video clip on the station’s website, for instance, shows Saakashvili chewing on the end of his tie while on a phone call; it’s captioned “The nervous Georgian President revealed an odd little habit.” The station also regularly features commentary from Alex Jones, the notorious American conspiracy theorist who in August apologized to Russia Today viewers for the Georgian invasion; an attack, he said, in fact perpetrated by “a private international military industrial complex” that had “taken over” the U.S. government.

But the real curtain-raiser for the new Russian p.r. campaign took place at the annual G-8 conference of industrialized democracies at St. Petersburg in 2006, where Russia celebrated its presidency of the organization. The pressure was especially high, as the Bush administration had made clear to Putin that the top-level confab would do little to change American views of Russia unless his government halted the persecution of political opponents and the independent media, and stopped rigging and canceling elections. “Russia has a choice to make,” Dick Cheney declared in May 2006, two months before the conference. “And there is no question that a return to democratic reform in Russia will generate further success for its people and greater respect among fellow nations.”

Democratic reform was evidently not what the Russians had in mind. But, to whitewash its increasing authoritarianism, the Kremlin did something it had never done before: It hired a Washington, D.C. communications firm to press its case. The same month Cheney was calling on Russia to reform, Ketchum Inc., a major p.r. outfit that represents Kodak, IBM, Nokia, and FedEx, won a $2 million contract to “pursue several communications activities to facilitate a relationship between Russia’s Presidency of the G-8 and the media.” (Ketchum shares the account with GPlus Europe, a London- and Brussels-based p.r. company owned by its parent firm, Omnicom.)

The G-8 meeting was set at Konstantinovsky Palace and Peterhof, eighteenth-century castles that once belonged to Peter the Great, and it served as a “three-day tutorial on Russia’s revival,” as The Washington Post described it. This was a time of rising oil prices and, thus, increasing Russian confidence in its ability to dictate the course of global events. But Ketchum eased the Russian bombast with a little Washington finesse: Twenty-five Ketchum employees headed to St. Petersburg, where they arranged interviews for reporters with senior Russian government leaders, established podcasts featuring Russian officials, and set up a webcast of the conference with the BBC. Ketchum later bragged that it “succeeded in helping ... shift global views of Russia to recognize its more democratic nature”; the company won a “Silver Anvil” prize from the Public Relations Society of America and a PRWeek Global Campaign of the Year Award for its work.

The Russians were no doubt impressed, because in January 2007 they signed an $845,000, two-month contract with Ketchum and its lobbying subsidiary, The Washington Group, for “public relations counsel, lobbying and media relations support.” (The account, which ended late last year when The Washington Group merged with another lobbying firm, was handled at one time by John O’Hanlon, a longtime fund-raiser for the Democratic Party. Today, Ketchum is in the process of hiring another lobbying firm to represent Russia’s interests in Washington.) In August, Ketchum began providing media relations support for Gazprom, the Russian state energy company, to the tune of nearly $250,000 per month. According to The Hill, since 2006, Ketchum and The Washington Group have earned more than $7.5 million in fees from the Russian government.

Some of the effort is overtly political. In the midst of the conflict between Russia and Georgia, employees for The Washington Group, including former Republican congresswoman Susan Molinari, then CEO of the firm, contacted Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, her former colleague and ranking Republican member on the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, as well as staffers for Representative Joe Crowley and then-Senator Joe Biden, according to documents filed with the Department of Justice.

But Ketchum also spends a lot of time trying to soften up the press. Among many other press coups, Ketchum staffers have set up interviews with a high-level Russian government official for journalists like The New Yorker editor David Remnick, arranged a meeting between Gazprom executives and members of The Wall Street Journal’s editorial board, and traveled to Kennebunkport, Maine, for the 2007 “Lobster Summit” with Bush and Putin. In November 2007, Ketchum “[r]eached out to contacts at Time Warner” to lobby on behalf of Putin’s becoming Time Magazine’s “Person of the Year.” Putin won.

TRY AS KETCHUM might to claim credit for getting Putin’s mug on the cover of Time, that particular coup likely had more to do with the Russian leader’s role in reasserting the strength of the Russian state than it did with well-paid p.r. consultants. (In a piece describing why Time chose Putin, managing editor Richard Stengel reminded readers that “Time’s Person of the Year is not and never has been an honor.”) And Ketchum certainly wasn’t up to the task of digging Russia out of the p.r. ditch that was the Georgia war. International press coverage of the conflict was almost uniformly critical of Russia, while, thanks in part to the media savvy of the American-educated Saakashvili, Georgia received widespread sympathy.

Partly in response to that p.r. failure, Russia is extending its efforts further. In October, the dean of the international relations department of the Russian Foreign Ministry’s Diplomatic Academy called for nothing less than the restoration of the Soviet-era propaganda bureau, one that would “restore the potential of the [Soviet-era] mechanism of foreign political propaganda which was completely destroyed in the 1990s,” Russia expert Paul Goble reported on his blog. Certainly one of the more ham-handed elements of the p.r. effort was the establishment last year of the Institute for Democracy and Cooperation. The institute, which has a branch in New York City, was set up to critique the supposed deficits in American democracy. “Russia denies the Western community the exclusive right to determine what constitutes democracy,” declared the government newspaperRossiiskaya Gazeta about the institute.

But no matter how hard Russia tries, or how much money it spends, its flacks don’t have much to write home to Moscow about. A month after Russia’s Georgian adventure, President Bush cancelled a non-military nuclear cooperation agreement that he had sent to Congress for approval in May and pledged a $1 billion aid package to Georgia. And the public was no more sympathetic to the Russian point of view: During the war, a Rasmussen poll found that 59 percent of Americans considered the Russian invasion a threat to U.S. national security. And, according to a poll released last September by the German Marshall Fund of the United States, 58 percent of Americans support “provid[ing] security assistance for neighboring democracies like Ukraine and Georgia,” and 84 percent are concerned about Russia’s supply of armaments to the Middle East.

Changing public perceptions of a historic antagonist is a difficult task, but, even on more readily attainable goals, Russia has been unsuccessful. Reportedly, one of the key issues the Russians hired the Washington Group to lobby on is repeal of the Jackson-Vanik amendment. Passed in 1974 to protest Soviet restrictions on its Jewish population, the law denies favorable trade relations with non-free market countries that restrict emigration. Russia has met the emigration requirement since the early 1990s, and the United States waives it every year. Yet the existence of the amendment is a symbolic wound to the Russians, and one that, thus far, they have not been able to convince the United States to rescind.

Another way to judge the effectiveness of the Kremlin’s attempt at glasnost is the response of American politicians. While some realists and liberals criticized John McCain’s bold declaration that “[w]e are all Georgians,” it was Barack Obama’s initially equivocal response, blaming both sides for the crisis, that ultimately looked premature. Over the ensuing days, Obama shifted his position closer to McCain’s skepticism of the Russian bear. Both presidential tickets supported extending NATO membership to Ukraine and Georgia, a major source of tension between Russia and the West, and were highly critical of Putin’s human rights abuses in their rhetoric on the trail. And, while Obama campaigned on a return to American “humility” in foreign policy, his appointment of Stanford University Professor Michael McFaul, a harsh critic of Kremlin human rights abuses and an outspoken advocate for nato expansion and political liberalization in Russia, as senior director for Russian affairs on the National Security Council ought to upset Kremlin hardliners.

But the biggest stumbling block in Russia’s self-laudatory campaign is clearly Russian leadership itself—as it has always been. Fifty years ago, Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev banged his shoe at the United Nations and told the United States, “We will bury you.” Today, Putin likens U.S. policy to the Third Reich and manipulates Europe’s gas supply. On September 12—during Valdai—state television aired an Italian-produced documentary alleging that the United States government was complicit in the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. “All these things, they create an unfavorable impression in the West,” says Oleg Kalugin, a former KGB general and propagandist. “And this is what the Russian current propaganda machine wants to rectify ... to show Russia as solid, reliable, part of the Western world and interested in integration in the western world.”

It’s possible that there’s a silver lining to Russia’s new p.r. offensive. “It is a positive that the Russians care so much that they’re going on and trying to look good,” says Tom Simons, a former U.S. ambassador to Poland. But, as long as the Russians stoke anti-American sentiment at home, interfere violently in their “near-abroad,” and parade around goons like Ramzan Kadyrov, they shouldn’t expect to earn the warm feelings of the American people anytime soon.

James Kirchick is an assistant editor at The New Republic. 

This article appeared in the February 18, 2009 issue of the magazine.