Cards on the table: I was planning to write about something different this AM. And then, late last night, I stumbled across Luke O’Brien’s story in Politico about the efforts of Beltway lobbying/public relations firms to improve Russia’s image in the United States. It’s amazing reading.

How amazing?  Here are five highlights that I found:

1) Dana Rohrabacher’s man-crush on Vladimir Putin. O’Brien’s opening anecdote, from the mid-1990s, is U.S. House Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.) losing at arm-wrestling in a D.C. dive bar to a strong, wiry deputy mayor from St. Petersburg named Vladimir Putin. As O’Brien then writes, “Roughly 20 years later, the California Republican still goes a little gooey over Russia’s strongman president.”

I haven’t seen a conservative Republican get this weak-kneed about an authoritarian strongman since… well, yesterday, when conservatives were falling all over themselves praising Egyptian strongman Abdel Fattah al-Sissi’s speech about Islam. 

2) The vague impact of lobbying. From the nut paragraph of O’Brien’s story:

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? 

For what, indeed?  The rest of the story is replete with asides like “disclosures by Ketchum and its lobbyists show very little activity for the millions they got paid.” As debates about how to measure “impact” roil my discipline, it’s fascinating to read how PR and lobbying firms can’t really measure impact either. The only tangible accomplishment that O’Brien attributes to Ketchum to date is its ability to help place Putin’s schadenfreude-laden September 2013 op-ed in the New York Times.

3) Russian officials’ inability to understand how lobbying works. To be fair to Ketchum, it’s not like the Russians were the most helpful of clients. In the time since it took the Russia account, Moscow has cracked down domestically and used force to carve up two neighboring countries. One lobbyist told O’Brien that his role was akin to “trying to polish a turd.”

Part of the problem might have been that Russian policymakers evinced a somewhat distorted view of how to exercise influence over, say, the mainstream media:

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.”

4) Steven Seagal plays an important part in this tale. Really, you have to read the whole thing to get a sense of the former action movie star’s role in Russo-American relations. My favorite bizarre little detail, however: one member of Seagal’s entourage “carried a black satchel filled only with sunglasses for his boss, according to the American official.”

5) Rohrabacher’s dubious and bizarre chairing of his House subcommittee. The truly ironic thing about O’Brien’s story is that Russia’s greatest friend inside the Beltway hasn’t been the beneficiary of Ketchum’s PR or lobbying efforts, because of his man-crushes on Putin and Seagal. But Rohrabacher’s chairing of the House Foreign Affairs subcommittee on Europe, Eurasia and Emerging Threats have led to some bizarre recent moments — such as cancelling a hearing because Seagal was unavailable to testify. Then there’s this bit:  

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.

Seriously, read the whole thing — there’s a lot more in the story than the highlights listed here.

I can only hope that Politico’s European operations get mobilized very soon — because in many ways, Russian lobbying will bear more fruit in these countries, and the reporting will turn from seriocomic to just serious. Why, just yesterday, French President Francois Hollande told reporters, “Mr. Putin does not want to annex eastern Ukraine, I am sure — he told me so.” To be honest, I suspect Russia doesn’t want to annex just those parts of Ukrane — but still, that’s lobbying!!