Luke O’Brien is senior correspondent for Politico Magazine.
Even money, lots and lots of money, can’t buy him love. A story of lobbying and its limits.
Inside the bar near Union Station, the two men propped their elbows on a table and locked hands. They’d paired off, American versus Russian, congressman from California versus deputy mayor of St. Petersburg. It was the 1990s, not long after the Soviet Union’s collapse, and Dana Rohrabacher squinted across the table at his opponent, a compact Russian with wispy blond hair and hooded blue eyes. The man carried himself with cool poise. Earlier that day, he and two of his colleagues had joined Rohrabacher and a group of right-wingers for a game of touch football. The Russians acquitted themselves well.
The Cold War was over. Hopes for cooperation between former enemies ran high. The Russian delegates had wanted to meet Rohrabacher, a former speechwriter for Ronald Reagan who had helped shape the Reagan Doctrine, which sought to undercut Soviet influence around the world by backing anticommunist guerrillas. Rohrabacher had managed to avoid military service himself during the Vietnam War but often boasted about a Charlie Wilson moment he had in Afghanistan in 1988, when he spent a couple of weeks with a mujahedeen unit near the city of Jalalabad. He claimed to have helped shoot a missile at a Soviet position, taking return fire for his efforts.
He was just the guy to wrassle Russkies in a bar. The group also included Ed Royce, another California Republican congressman who now chairs the House Foreign Affairs Committee, and Jack Wheeler, a professional adventurer and anticommunist activist who had spent time with insurgents around the world. They rolled into Kelly’s Irish Times, an F Street dive that has seen its share of crapulent Washington history. They drank cheap beer. Lots of it. They drank until the inevitable question came up: Who really won the Cold War? Or, as Rohrabacher clarifies today, did the Americans win the Cold War, "or did it just end?” There were many possible ways to decide the question. Arm wrestling was deemed best. So a table was cleared. A crowd drew near. The congressman would take on the deputy mayor.
As Rohrabacher leaned forward and clasped hands with his foe, he soon realized that the diminutive Russian bureaucrat was stronger than he expected.
It was over in an instant. The deputy mayor torqued his shoulder. The congressman went down. With the American’s arm pinned to the table, the Russian smirked. He was, after all, a judo black belt with a lifetime of experience throwing opponents to the ground. He had also done 16 years in the KGB.
This marked the precise moment that Representative Dana Rohrabacher first fell for Vladimir Putin.
Roughly 20 years later, the California Republican still goes a little gooey over Russia’s strongman president. Rohrabacher, who chairs the House Foreign Affairs subcommittee on Europe, Eurasia and emerging threats, has navigated a remarkable arc from self-professed "ultimate cold warrior” to friend of the new, and increasingly grumpy, Russian bear. More than anyone in Congress, he has become a reliable defender of the Russian point of view, whether it has to do with NATO expansion ("not thoughtful in creating a better relationship with our former enemy”), the inadvisability of economic sanctions ("instead of doing it that way, we should be making an all-out effort to create dialogue”) or the current hostilities in Ukraine, which Rohrabacher says were precipitated at least in part by Western meddling ("I don’t think we should blame all this on Russia”).
It might be a fringe stance, but Rohrabacher is consistent if not compelling to a Washington audience that is dubious about Putin but unsure just what to do about him. In a way, it’s the same gospel of detente Henry Kissinger has been preaching since Nixon: The United States needs to deal with Russia and try to find common ground. Russia’s voice needs to be heard.
"I think if we had areas of better cooperation with Russia, we could have averted a relationship that is now on the rocks,” says Rohrabacher, who nods to Putin’s "many flaws” but also thinks the United States "should not be trying to antagonize him.” "Over the years we have minimized the areas of cooperation and maximized efforts on things that could be viewed as belligerent by Russia,” he says.
This is as good as it gets for Vladimir Putin in today’s Washington. At a time of worsening tensions, escalating sanctions and a crashing Moscow market, when, more than ever, the Russian leader could stand to have a few friends in the American capital, his old arm-wrasslin’ buddy, a man viewed by many as colorfully erratic, may be the best ally he has.
Or he may be the only one. To Putin and his embattled regime, that’s increasingly how it looks. Amid December’s Russian ruble collapse, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov openly blamed Washington for his country’s troubles, saying there were "very serious reasons to believe” that the United States is pursuing a regime change strategy to topple Putin—aided and abetted by Rohrabacher’s colleagues on Capitol Hill. "If you look at the U.S. Congress,” Lavrov said, "eighty percent of them have never left the USA, so I’m not surprised about Russophobia in Congress.”
Russophobia, indeed. To the extent Russia has any friends other than Rohrabacher in Washington today, they are for the most part officially paid for—a slew of slick and ineffective PR people and lobbyists who have eagerly taken millions of dollars from Russia in recent years to help burnish its image. Ketchum, the giant PR agency on the Russia account, has earned more than $60 million from the Kremlin over the past nine years, according to legally required disclosures. And for what? Russia is viewed less favorably today than in 2006, when its relationship with Ketchum began. In the 2012 presidential campaign, Americans shrugged when Republican nominee Mitt Romney called Russia America’s No. 1 geopolitical problem. And today? A recent CNN poll found that 69 percent of Americans view Russia as a threat.
If you look at the U.S. Congress,” said Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, "eighty percent of them have never left the USA, so I’m not surprised about Russophobia in Congress.”
The flacks and lobbyists have had a difficult assignment, of course: 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.”
The meetings took place inside the Kremlin, but not the Kremlin of gilded salons and gorgeous frescoes. Publicists from Ketchum got the Soviet-style treatment: smoke-stained hallways with burned-out light bulbs, tiny elevators that couldn’t fit more than a few people, grim guards at checkpoints. Still, the trips to Moscow were exciting. Ketchum had access to the highest levels of government through its contact and patron, Dmitry Peskov, Putin’s influential press attaché.
Peskov had handpicked Ketchum to work on the G-8 summit in St. Petersburg in 2006. Russia’s image needed buffing after taking a hit that winter when Gazprom, the massive state-controlled energy company, cut off natural gas to Ukraine. Peskov and other media-savvy members of the Putin administration understood that a Western-style makeover would help. And Ketchum delivered at the G-8, arranging media interviews and recording podcasts, and connecting with American think tanks and officials to show Russia in a more flattering light. Peskov was so pleased that he inked a broader contract for Ketchum to "facilitate dialog [sic] and a relationship between The Russian Federation and representatives of the United States government and media.”
The deal was a coup, even for a big global company. At about $5 million a year, it was "one of Ketchum’s top 10 accounts,” according to a former executive familiar with the Russia portfolio. And the arrangement was lucrative not only for Ketchum. The firm brought in private consultants, one of whom was paid more than $850,000 over five and a half years to court think tanks and seek investment dollars for Russia. Ketchum employees flew business class to Moscow and racked up expenses as they spun up their PR operation: op-eds in major newspapers, "influencer” outreach, a slick new web platform called ModernRussia (now thinkRUSSIA).
For lobbying help, Ketchum turned to The Washington Group, which was owned by Omnicom, Ketchum’s parent company. Run by Susan Molinari, a former Republican congresswoman from New York who now heads Google’s lobbying and policy office in D.C., The Washington Group began reaching out to members of Congress and officials in the Bush administration. The lobbyists wanted to discuss economic issues such as admitting Russia to the World Trade Organization and lifting Jackson-Vanik, an outdated 1974 amendment that prevented normal trade relations with the United States and had originally been passed as a way to condemn Soviet refusal to allow Jewish emigration. Soon, Ketchum landed another juicy contract, for about $250,000 per month, with Gazprom Export, a subsidiary fully owned by the Russian energy giant.
A culture clash was already apparent. Russian officials couldn’t understand why publicists weren’t simply able to buy journalists. Or manipulate them. Nor did they listen to Ketchum’s pleas to open up to the Western media, let alone Congress. "It’s not something that comes naturally to them,” says Ed Verona, the former head of the U.S.-Russia Business Council, a trade group for American and Russian companies that lobbies Congress extensively. "Not all Russian lawmakers are corrupt and there is legitimate lobbying, but unfortunately to a great extent it still consists of passing an envelope to somebody.”
The Russians struggled to follow through on advice Ketchum laid out in briefing papers. When Sergei Kislyak was appointed Russian ambassador to the United States in 2008, Ketchum drew up an introductory public affairs plan for him that included receptions with Washington influencers, prepping for Q&A sessions and an op-ed to herald the new relationship with America. Kislyak ignored it all. (He also ignored multiple phone and email requests for comment placed with the Russian Embassy.) That wasn’t entirely unexpected. Ketchum routinely sent detailed public affairs plans to the Kremlin that languished in limbo. Then again, this wasn’t unusual when it came to clients of corporate public relations agencies. The Russians were just worse about it.
"It could be extremely frustrating,” says the former Ketchum executive.
When war erupted in August 2008 between Russia and Georgia over South Ossetia, a disputed territory, Ketchum publicists suddenly found themselves trying to line up media interviews with Russian officials and to credential reporters for a war zone. It didn’t go well. The conflict generated angst in the firm’s New York office, where employees are more accustomed to selling Crystal Light than spinning a war. Georgian officials, meanwhile, were on the air nonstop railing against Russian aggression. Their PR operation ran circles around Ketchum, which copped to its "communications failure” in an internal document obtained by Politico Magazine.
The Russian government did, too. In a December 2008 meeting in Moscow with Rohrabacher and Bill Delahunt, then a Democratic congressman from Massachusetts, Russia Deputy Foreign Minister Grigory Karasin conceded that Russia had lost the PR battle to Georgia, according to a diplomatic cable released by WikiLeaks. Delahunt told Karasin the Russians needed to "work the Hill” more effectively. Russia’s perspective wasn’t being expressed. That task fell mainly to Delahunt and Rohrabacher, two of the earliest and most vigorous defenders of Russia in the South Ossetia conflict. At one point, Rohrabacher claimed that unidentified intelligence sources had told him Georgia started the fighting, which was a key Ketchum talking point. "The Russians are right. We are wrong,” he said during a Foreign Affairs Committee hearing. One Russian newspaper wrote that Rohrabacher’s comments were the kind that "Russian lobbyists in Washington could only dream of.”
The newspaper was correct in more than one sense. The Washington Group lobbyists by this point had in effect stopped lobbying. "They didn’t do shit,” says the former Ketchum executive. At the end of 2008, according to the former Ketchum executive, Ketchum replaced its sister company, The Washington Group, with Alston & Bird, an outside law firm. (In response to requests for comment, Molinari had an assistant read an email over the phone that indicated partners at The Washington Group had taken a vote and decided to lobby for Russia only on the subject of WTO membership.)
Another dispute unfolded with Clark & Weinstock, an Omnicom company Ketchum had hired to lobby for Gazprom. Clark & Weinstock’s star power was concentrated in managing partner Vin Weber, a former Republican congressman and an adviser to numerous presidential candidates. "Gazprom didn’t know anyone,” Weber says. "So we just introduced them. Once you’ve established the relationships, then you can sit down.”
But Ketchum expected more. One flash point occurred when Gazprom honcho Alexander Medvedev came to Washington in 2009. Ketchum wanted him to sit down with Senators John Kerry and Dick Lugar, then the chairman and the ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, but Clark & Weinstock couldn’t get the meetings on the day Medvedev was available. It was Veterans Day.
In 2010, Ketchum parted ways with Clark & Weinstock. Says a former lobbyist for the firm: "I’m embarrassed I worked on it.”
By then, President Barack Obama had launched a "reset” policy with Russia to improve relations. The approach was, at first, encouraging. The two nations signed a new nuclear arms reduction treaty. They opened a supply line to U.S. forces in Afghanistan from the Baltic Sea through Russia into Kazakhstan. Russia also made progress toward getting into the WTO. Ketchum and its proxies couldn’t take credit for those developments, but they helped soften Russia’s image. The money kept rolling in.
A new problem loomed, however. After a four-year hiatus as prime minister, Putin was returning for a third term as president. Many Russians felt the elections had been rigged. At the end of 2011 and the beginning of 2012, they took to the streets in huge numbers to protest. The government crackdown was severe. The KGB strongman was back. He had his own reset policy in mind.
Talk to enough human-rights advocates in Washington and the name von Kloberg is bound to come up. Full version: Baron Edward J. von Kloberg III, lobbyist for the damned. During the 1980s and ’90s, von Kloberg, who was neither a real baron nor a real "von,” lobbied for an all-star lineup of tyrants, including Saddam Hussein, Nicolae Ceausescu and Mobutu Sese Seko. "[H]e was the William Morris Agency of global pariahs,” Mark Steyn wrote of von Kloberg in the Atlantic in 2005, not long after the lobbyist leaped to his death from the parapet of the Castel Sant’Angelo in Rome, like the operatic heroine Tosca. Von Kloberg had been spurned by his young boyfriend, a Lithuanian masseur turned business partner. Von Kloberg died for love.
Shame, on the other hand, could never do him in. "Shame is for sissies,” von Kloberg loved to say. The splashy lobbyist enjoyed attending social events in Washington in a black cape lined with red velvet. After Spy magazine pranked him by sending a neo-Nazi imposter to solicit his services with the promise of a big payday, von Kloberg showed up at the magazine’s office wearing a helmet and a gas mask. "I can take the flak,” he said.
For more than two decades, von Kloberg had the run of the despot niche. No longer. Since his heyday, Washington lobbying has turned into a multibillion-dollar enterprise in which much of the stigma attached to shilling for the unsavory has dwindled or been anonymized by big firms of lawyers and spin doctors; they are selling services these days, not salvation. The thinking goes something like this: It’s just business, and besides, lobbying performs a useful function, as it’s important to communicate with—and comprehend—rivals and adversaries.
However you spin it, such lobbying has become part of the American way. "It used to be just one guy,” says Thor Halvorssen, the president of the Human Rights Foundation, an organization with Garry Kasparov and Elie Wiesel on its board. "Now it’s all these PR firms that bullshit everyone.”
The current client roster of Squire Patton Boggs, which includes human-rights stalwarts such as China, Libya and Saudi Arabia, proves that if shame is for sissies, it also has an inverse relationship to money. "We pick our clients by taking the first one who comes in the door,” Tommy Boggs, also deceased (heart attack), liked to say.
Knowing who is actually lobbying for a foreign entity and what agenda they are pushing can be difficult, however, given how little lobbyists have to disclose. According to the Foreign Agents Registration Act of 1938, which Congress passed in response to Nazi propagandists operating in the United States, anyone working on behalf of a foreign principal must register contracts and activity reports with the Department of Justice. They must report what they do, whom they contact and why, especially if it involves political activity to influence a government agency or official. But the reasons given are often too broad to make sense of. Consider one contact that Ketchum made with Congress on April 25, 2007. The FARA disclosures show that a lobbyist sent an email to "Mitch Wadman [sic], National Security Advisor to Senator [Trent] Lott.” Ketchum’s description of the interests or policies the lobbyist sought to influence consisted of one word: "Russia.”
Disclosures by Ketchum and its lobbyists show very little activity for the millions they got paid. Alston & Bird, the firm Ketchum hired to lobby for the Russian Federation, 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. For the past two and a half years, Alston & Bird has reported no activity of any kind on the account. No emails. No phone calls. Nothing. Overall, they have earned $1.5 million on the Russia account. (Bob Jones, the Alston & Bird partner in charge of the Russia account, did not respond to multiple requests for comment.)
The firm that Ketchum hired to take over the Gazprom account, Venable, was nearly as listless, aside from a spurt of activity after landing the contract. From Nov. 1, 2010, to April 30, 2014, Venable, which put former Democratic Senator Birch Bayh on the account, among others, sent out seven emails, had four meetings, made two phone calls and had two teleconferences, according to FARA records. Ketchum paid Venable $1.1 million. Both Venable and Alston & Bird may have earned their pay in other ways—by providing political analysis of legislation and news events, for instance—but whatever they were doing, they were not lobbying Washington, at least in any disclosed way. (Venable did not respond to multiple requests for comment.)
Aside from Ketchum, the Russian government has had little aboveground presence in Washington. One other large PR agency that has handled Russian work is APCO Worldwide, which in 2010 took on Techsnabexport, the nuclear fuel-exporting subsidiary of Rosatom, a state-owned corporation that controls the Russian nuclear industry. And in 2003, Peter Hannaford, an APCO senior counselor who had been a Reagan adviser, represented the Russian Information Agency, the state-operated news service. (Hannaford, it should be noted, also represented Austria’s far-right Freedom Party, then headed by Jorg Haider, who once praised the Third Reich for its "orderly employment policy.”) That was about it.
Strange bodies infest Capitol Hill. The motorcycle caucus. The peanut caucus. The tennis caucus. In September 2011, Representative Gregory Meeks (D-N.Y.) created another one: the U.S.-Russia Economic Relations Caucus. With JFK International Airport in his district, Meeks was focused on international trade and said he wanted to grant Russia trade status that would allow for unfettered commerce with the United States. For that to happen, Congress would have to repeal the Jackson-Vanik amendment, the 1974 legal provision that restricted trade with certain former Communist bloc countries. The Russians viewed Jackson-Vanik as a demeaning anachronism. They wanted it lifted. Many American businesses felt the same way. Meeks did, too.
"He was on board,” says Verona, who headed the U.S. Russia Business Council. "He spoke at several of our events. We appreciated it.”
The relevance of the Russia caucus, however, was less clear. Its purpose, Meeks said, was to support Russia’s bid for World Trade Organization membership. A few weeks after its formation, however, Russia got into the WTO, the culmination of an 18-year process. What was the point of the caucus now? Other members of Congress don’t even remember it. According to their disclosures, Ketchum’s PR experts contacted the congressman just once, to let him know about the visit of a government minister. Meeks met with the official. And he met with Kislyak, the Russian ambassador, a cheery, rotund man. If nothing else, the caucus offered an excuse to convene for vodka. Representative Michael Grimm (R-N.Y.), one of Meeks’ close friends in Congress, wanted in, too.
A former FBI agent who went "undercover” on Wall Street posing as a mob-connected trader, Grimm was indicted last year on 20 counts of fraud and perjury charges stemming from his ownership of a Manhattan restaurant called Healthalicious; in December, he pleaded guilty to one felony charge of filing false tax returns for the restaurant and announced he would resign from Congress. As part of his FBI alter ego, Grimm adopted a gangster nickname that reflected an affinity for expensive threads: Mikey Suits. And "Suits” had a temper. Grimm once pulled a gun in a crowded nightclub after becoming too friendly with a married woman and getting into a fight with her husband. More recently, he threatened to throw a reporter off a balcony inside the U.S. Capitol. The reporter had asked about Grimm’s apparent financial indiscretions, which include alleged campaign finance violations. "I’ll break you in half,” Grimm told the reporter on camera, "like a boy.”
In August 2012, Grimm became co-chairman of the House Russia caucus. He said the group was a way to reach out to the large ethnic Russian population in his district, which encompasses Staten Island and parts of southern Brooklyn. Perhaps he was equally concerned about his district’s ethnic populations of Israelis, Poles, Moroccans, Central Africans, Swiss and Dutch, for he also co-chaired those caucuses. Such member organizations can help politicians raise money from businesses with interests in foreign countries. Or they provide an opportunity for a congressman and his staff to score a junket to an exotic locale.
In November 2012, Grimm and Meeks issued a joint statement after voting in favor of Jackson-Vanik repeal. The bill passed the Senate a few weeks later. Instead of responding enthusiastically, however, the Russians were incensed. The reason? Another piece of legislation had been fused to Jackson-Vanik. It was called the Magnitsky Act, after Sergei Magnitsky, a young Russian auditor who uncovered a $230 million fraud that implicated Russian tax and police officials. Magnitsky was arrested on bogus charges by police in Moscow in 2008. He was taken to the bleak Butyrka prison, where Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn had been an inmate, and then allegedly beaten and tortured. He later died in custody.
Magnitsky’s former employer, Bill Browder, an American-born investor who runs the firm victimized by the fraud, aimed to punish the Russian officials responsible by getting the U.S. government to impose visa sanctions and cutting them off from the American banking system. Several supportive senators, chief among them Maryland Democrat Ben Cardin refused to vote for Jackson-Vanik repeal unless the Magnitsky Act was attached. Other members of Congress, like Rohrabacher, wanted Magnitsky to be a separate measure but voted for it anyway. And so it became law. In one stroke, Congress had elevated Russia as a trade partner and smacked her down over human rights. Unaccustomed to being named and shamed, Russian officials were furious.
"A performance in the theater of the absurd,” Russia’s Foreign Ministry called the Senate decision.
Even as Russian resentment built over Magnitsky, Putin had started to reset Obama’s reset. Moscow had already moved to stifle pro-democracy groups and human-rights advocates. Protesters were subject to crushing fines. Nongovernmental organizations receiving foreign funding had been punished. Putin booted the U.S. Agency for International Development out of the country. And after Congress passed Magnitsky, the Russian government passed a retaliatory law to ban Americans from adopting Russian children.
"That flushed however many millions of PR spending down the drain,” says Michael McFaul, the American ambassador to Russia at the time.
Ketchum’s reported efforts by this point consisted mainly of sending out press releases, updating websites and watching Russian money flow into its accounts. Ketchum was still making about $3 million per year from the Russian Federation. On the Gazprom account, the payments had increased. They were coming now through a company in England called Diversified Energy Communications Ltd. From December 1, 2011, through May 30, 2014, Ketchum received $17.3 million for its Gazprom work. Ketchum distributed company statements and a newsletter, put content on social media platforms and, oddly, began sending out press releases for the Kontinental Hockey League, whose president at the time was Alexander Medvedev, the Gazprom honcho who failed to meet with Kerry and Lugar on his trip to Washington.
Ketchum produced one notable PR success for Russia during this period: placing a September 11, 2013, op-ed by Putin in the New York Times. The Russian president criticized American exceptionalism and wrote that an American-led strike against the Syrian regime, to which Russia was supplying weapons, "could throw the entire system of international law and order out of balance.” He also solemnly counseled, "The law is still the law, and we must follow it whether we like it or not.”
In February 2014, Russia invaded Ukraine and soon took over the Crimean Peninsula. All the hockey press releases in the world couldn’t help its image now.
Dana Rohrabacher was getting emotional. He had been belting out ditties and downing vodka shots in an Italian restaurant of the Hotel Ukraina, one of Moscow’s iconic Seven Sisters, the ornate Stalinist buildings that help define the city’s character. Now the congressman was welling up as he offered a toast. "Here’s to closer cooperation between our two countries,” he said, according to an American official involved in the May 2013 congressional visit. Across the long table, Dmitry Rogozin, Putin’s hawkish deputy prime minister in charge of the defense industry—and one of the most anti-American voices in Russia—looked on approvingly. In less than a year, Rogozin would be among the Russians sanctioned by the American government after Russia’s annexation of Crimea.
It was a curious confab at which to find Rohrabacher, who is still overheard at cocktail parties telling people that he "helped kill more Soviet soldiers than anybody else I know.” In a previous lifetime, the congressman and his Reaganite friend, Jack Wheeler, used to issue another kind of toast—"FTC!”—every time they clanked beers: "Fuck The Commies!” According to Wheeler, the two even conspired to get the code on the Soviet Union’s diplomatic license plates changed to "FC” for "Fucking Commies!”
Yet here was a new Rohrabacher in a new Russia, offering up his heart. The delegation included five other members of Congress. They had come to learn more about the Boston Marathon bombers, about whom Russia’s domestic intelligence service, the FSB, had warned the FBI in 2011. The Rogozin dinner added an absurdist subtext to the boozy trip. It had been arranged by one of Rohrabacher’s old friends, on whom the congressman relies for advice on Russia, a person held in such high regard by Putin and Rogozin that they were courting him to lobby for the Russian arms industry in the United States. This hulking man with Dracula eyebrows, clad entirely in black, the official reincarnation of a 17th-century Tibetan lama, was the action-movie star Steven Seagal. He sat next to Rogozin’s wife, saying little, and around him buzzed an entourage of stocky, younger men with black hair who resembled smaller versions of the actor. One carried a black satchel filled only with sunglasses for his boss, according to the American official. "A lot of this is like a bad dream,” says the official.
Seagal has popped up in many strange places in recent years—with Brazilian martial arts fighter Anderson Silva, claiming to have imparted knockout wisdom; on a tank with Maricopa County, Arizona, Sheriff Joe Arpaio, crashing through a man’s wall in a misguided attempt to prevent animal cruelty—but acting as a fixer for a congressional delegation to Russia might be his most eye-popping cameo. Even more surprising is Seagal’s reinvention as a Russia expert, via Rohrabacher: In 2013, Rohrabacher refused to hold a hearing on Russia for his subcommittee in part because Seagal was unavailable as a witness, according to a source familiar with Rohrabacher’s association with Seagal.
Rohrabacher defends that relationship. "I worked for an actor for seven years, and it was that actor that ended the Cold War,” he says, invoking Reagan. "I know some people think actors are just reading scripts and are shallow people. I learned a long time ago that’s not the case.”
Oddly, several of the conservatives who stand up to defend Russia in Washington are former Reaganites like Rohrabacher, ex-cold warriors who have gone softer than a Stroganoff noodle on Putin. Rohrabacher is the most noticeable. But there’s also former Reagan aide Pat Buchanan, who in December 2013 wrote a blog post titled, "Is Putin One of Us?” Buchanan wondered if Putin wasn’t a "paleoconservative” in the culture war against liberal schemes such as gay marriage and abortion. (Putin has signed multiple anti-gay laws and regularly invokes God and the resurrection of Russia’s Orthodox religiosity.)
Courtesy of Rohrabacher, at least one of Putin’s Reaganite fans has appeared before Congress to voice the Russian perspective or, perhaps, to silence or confuse opposition to it. For a hearing on the Ukraine crisis before his subcommittee on July 29, 2014, Rohrabacher picked as a witness Anthony Salvia, the executive director of the American Institute in Ukraine, a little-known nonprofit. Salvia served in the Reagan administration as a midlevel official in the State Department. Before the committee, he gave a presentation that papered over Russian aggression in Ukraine. He also neglected to mention that he is a director of a public affairs firm called the Global Strategic Communications Group. In 2005, the firm registered to lobby for the leadership of Rodina, a right-wing Russian political party. The Rodina chairman at the time was Dmitry Rogozin, the combative deputy prime minister who feasted with Rohrabacher in Moscow.
That Salvia wasn’t the ideal witness to comment on Ukraine seemed to escape Rohrabacher, who grew flustered during the hearing as the ranking member on his subcommittee, Representative William Keating (D-Mass.), a former district attorney, rattled off Salvia’s numerous apparent conflicts of interest. But Rohrabacher has made such missteps before. In April 2013, he summoned Andranik Migranyan, the head of a Kremlin-aligned think tank, to testify before Congress. (Migranyan is considered so compromised in foreign policy circles that even Ketchum eventually decided not to deal with him.) During the 2013 congressional trip to Russia, Rohrabacher almost committed an even more egregious faux pas after Seagal offered to broker a meeting with Ramzan Kadyrov, the brutal, Putin-installed head of the Chechen Republic. Rohrabacher was raring to go, but the State Department, concerned about security, refused to provide support for the extra leg, according to a source involved in the trip.
Still, Rohrabacher might be the best defender Russia has in Washington today. State-funded Russian media can always play clips of Rohrabacher standing up for Putin to help drum up support. During the Ukraine crisis, for instance, the congressman gave an interview to Russia’s RT network in which he pleaded for a little more understanding for Moscow: "Mr. Putin is demonized by a lot of people here,” Rohrabacher told the interviewer. "Whenever he’s [just] watching out for Russia’s self-interest, we’re acting as if this is the old Cold War days. … Well, Putin has a right to watch out for the interests of the people there.”
Rohrabacher seems to see in Putin, for all his faults, qualities similar to those of the man he once worked for—a leader who restored national pride after a period of defeat, humiliation and political tumult. Russia, to him, is a country reborn.
"The last time I was there, maybe during the August break, there was a festival for the birthday of the city of Moscow,” the congressman told me. "And the whole city was filled with revelers … people drinking and having a good time, dancing. It was almost like Mardi Gras. The city was one big party. ... That Moscow birthday celebration reminded me a lot of the July 4 celebration in 1983, when the effect of Ronald Reagan’s leadership was becoming felt. … There was a joy that spread across our country that was in stark contrast to the negativity of four years before. I sense that same spirit in Moscow. Putin has given them back pride.”
Come to think of it, "Morning in Moscow” might make a good slogan for a Putin PR campaign.
Russia may be in the market for a new spin doctor soon, anyway. Ketchum’s Gazprom contract was canceled last summer. The PR firm still has its Russian Federation account, but the gig is now little more than a sinecure. In a recent statement to Politico Magazine, Ketchum said: "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.”