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Even Amid Tensions, Russia's PR Team Is At Home In D.C.


Even as the United States and Europe ratchet up pressure on Russia, the Russian Federation has a lobbying team here in Washington. That might seem odd but it's not unusual, as NPR's Peter Overby reports.

PETER OVERBY, BYLINE: There's no mistaking how the United States feels toward the Russian Federation. Today, White House spokesman Jay Carney said the administration strongly condemns Russia's use of force in Crimea.

JAY CARNEY: Reports that a Ukrainian military officer was killed yesterday are particularly concerning, and belie President Putin's claim that Russia's military intervention in Crimea has brought security to that part of Ukraine.

OVERBY: But while all this is going on, Russia has a public-relations and lobbying presence in Washington and has had since 2007. Ketchum Incorporated, a public-relations giant based in New York disavows any role in the current confrontation. It said more than a week ago that, quote, "We are not advising the Russian Federation on foreign policy, including the current situation in Ukraine."

What it has been doing, according to Justice Department records, is help sell Russia's international policies in the American press and other venues. This includes what Ketchum called various aspects of U.S.-Russia relations. The question is: Will those relations get bad enough that Ketchum will change course and give up its lucrative contract?

JAMES THURBER: If they continue with their relationship when all of Europe and the United States are going in an opposite direction, it certainly hurts them very badly.

OVERBY: This is James Thurber, a political scientist at American University and long-time tracker of the lobbying business. His conclusion about Ketchum?

THURBER: They'll disengage when it gets very bad and we may be right there at this point.

OVERBY: But attorney Gene Burd doesn't think so. He's a native of Ukraine now working in Washington. He's represented businesses from Russia, Ukraine and the United States. He says Putin's Russia is hardly the first government to fall from favor here. And even so, it deserves representation. On the flip side, Burd says Ketchum has to protect its own credibility.

GENE BURD: If you get to the point where there are simply no facts that you can present, I guess at that point you may want to think whether you will be helpful to the client.

OVERBY: Ketchum has a subcontractor on the Russia account, the law-and-lobbying firm Alston & Bird. Its most recent filing at the Justice Department says it works Capitol Hill and the executive branch, advising Ketchum on issues that affect the bilateral U.S.-Russian relationship. In ordinary language: lobbying.

Alston told NPR to ask Ketchum for any comment for this story. Ketchum didn't respond to our requests. But in any case, there's one school of thought that all of this could turn out well for the firms.

MARJORIE KLINE: It's a very faint stigma, if there is one.

OVERBY: Marjorie Kline lectures on ethics at the Graduate School of Political Management at George Washington University. It's true, she says, that lots of critics will question the ethics of anyone who represents a nation locked in a confrontation with Washington. But that representation may be important in defusing the crisis.

KLINE: It doesn't really work to just shut the door and say here is right and there is wrong. It's about that conversation, it's about that workout.

OVERBY: She says the workout is where Russia's Washington representatives will be needed. It's also where they will see their opportunity if they can hang on that long.

Peter Overby, NPR News, Washington.


SIEGEL: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Peter Overby has covered Washington power, money, and influence since a foresighted NPR editor created the beat in 1994.
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