How to effectively promote Russian interests in the United States?
Since publishing my last column on How a Pro-Russia Lobby in the United States Could Change the Course of History, I’ve received a lot of feedback and enthusiasm about the potential a pro-Russia lobby has to change the course of Russia-U.S. relations. For many, it’s becoming increasingly obvious that building and supporting such a lobby in the United States would be incredibly beneficial for both Russia, the United States, and the world at large.
The question now becomes, how does a pro-Russia lobby go about effectively promoting Russian interests in the United States, in a political climate thoroughly hostile to Russia? What should be the strategy? And what key activities should this lobby focus on?
These are questions that I have thought a lot about. And today, I’m ready to propose an ambitious, three-pronged strategy that can change the current trajectory of Russia-U.S. relations.
However, before I unveil this grand strategy, I want to preface by laying out what I think should be the goals of lobbying in the United States. That is, if I learned anything from my time at the Graduate School of Management at Saint Petersburg University, it’s that an effective strategy starts with setting clear and verifiable goals that can be matched with a plan of action. Given the current state of affairs, the goals for a pro-Russia lobby should be to:
(1) Educate and inform the American public of Russia’s positions.
(2) Provoke dialogue that features Russian voices.
(3) Shift public opinion to more view Russia & Russia’s policies more favorably.
(4) Make a tangible impact on policy that strengthens areas of cooperation and deescalate tensions.
Each part of this strategy serves at least one or all of these goals. More importantly, this strategy focuses on identifying the specific activities and messaging that’s going to achieve those goals and make better Russia-U.S. relations a reality. Here it is:
Effectively promoting Russian interests in the United States starts with broad-based political outreach. This means meeting with American politicians, sharing and submitting policy proposals on key issues, and promoting candidates who will vote and introduce legislation that is friendly to Russia.
Thankfully, when it comes to political outreach, the playbook for effective political outreach has already been written by an organization known as AIPAC (American Israeli Public Affairs Committee). AIPAC, or “America’s pro-Israel lobby,” as it brands itself, is a household name in Washington with incredible influence among policy-makers. If a pro-Russia lobby wants to be effective in promoting and strengthening the Russia-U.S. relationship, then it should copy AIPAC’s formula for success. That formula is essentially three things: operating legally by the book, maintaining independence, and framing advocacy as a national security interest to the United States.
AIPAC wields incredible influence in the United States, but it does so without donating directly to political candidates. Instead, the organization informally directs its members to make private contributions to candidates with AIPAC’s seal of approval and rewards those members with exclusive membership benefits. This is important because this is the way AIPAC operates by the book and avoids legal liability. A pro-Russia lobby will need to do the same, especially considering the amount of scrutiny that comes with the title of being pro-Russian. It will need to need to identify Russia-friendly candidates and support those candidates by connecting them with private campaign donations that are compliant with state and federal election laws. A pro-Russia lobby should also work on a grassroots level and mobilize Russian-Americans to the ballot box. In fact, there are more than 2.5 million Russian-Americans, but most of them are politically inactive. A potent strategy would be to identify Russian-Americans with political potential and encourage them to run for public office. Those candidates once elected, will be able to introduce and vote on legislation that strengthens the Russia-U.S. relationship.
The second point is independence. According to the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA), individuals and organizations who act “at the order, request, or under the direction or control” of a foreign government or entity must register as foreign agents in the United States. AIPAC avoids the scarlet letter-type stigma that comes with being branded as a foreign agent by operating with total independence from Israel. In fact, AIPAC is an organization run by Americans for Americans. A pro-Russia lobby will need to harness the same approach by relying on native-born Americans and Russian-Americans to lead its organization and give the organization an air of legitimacy to evade the criticism that will inevitably come.
The last component of effective political outreach, as evidenced by AIPAC, is framing advocacy as in the best interest of the United States. Naturally, the best way to win over support from politicians who love their country is to point out to them why partnership and cooperation with Russia is good for their country. When meeting with and providing policy recommendations to American policymakers, a pro-Russia lobbying organization will need to frame those policies as policies that are going to be beneficial to America and consistent with American values. That shouldn’t be so hard, considering many Russia-friendly policies are beneficial and consistent with American values. For example, arms control makes Americans safer; Americans value democracy — well, Crimea is an example of democracy; Americans also value free trade — sanctions are antithetical to that value and hurt American businesses.
A major challenge to Russia-U.S. relations is the onslaught of disinformation and negative media directed toward Russia and issues involving Russia. To mitigate this challenge, a pro-Russia lobby must take the problem head-on through media outreach that is designed to granularly change the conversation in the United States and present the Russian perspective in ways it previously hasn’t been presented. This means submitting articles to leading media outlets, connecting Russian experts with podcast, radio, and TV appearances, maintaining a social media presence, and orchestrating issue-based media campaigns that focus on informing and changing public opinion.
An important part of this is messaging. A pro-Russia lobby will need to communicate in a way that is fact-based and intellectually appealing. The fact is, American media often dismisses talking points that come from Russia as propaganda, disinformation, or as simply not credible.
If a pro-Russia lobby wants to win friends and influence people, then it will need to discredit this stereotype with solid, fact-based messaging that can resonate with open-minded Americans. And the best way to achieve this is to partner with credible, well-established think tanks like the Russian International Affairs Council (RIAC) and Valdai Club, who already serve as an intellectual bulwark for Russia’s positions in international relations but don’t have access to American media. Together those organizations along with the pro-Russia lobby can start making headway towards overturning public opinion and with it, America’s more hostile policies towards Russia.
The final piece of the puzzle is event-based outreach. If a pro-Russia lobby wants to be successful in promoting better relations with Russia, then it must start making its way into the heart of America’s political discourse.
In the United States, politics is both sport and entertainment. It’s for that reason, all across the United States, there are political forums and conferences that attract thousands of people year in and year out. Among such people are America’s foremost policymakers, thought leaders, and average Joes who follow politics like they follow their favorite football team. These people are politically-engaged and the most open to dialogue. If a pro-Russia lobby wants to win over converts, then these are the people worth engaging with because these people are the same people who drive and inform America’s political conversations. And these events are where those conversations are happening.
Take, for example, Politcon, which attracted more than 10,000 attendees and generated more than 8 billion media impressions last year. Politicon’s format features panels, debates, town halls, live podcast episodes, and everything in between. This year, Politcon is hosting a panel discussion titled “Russia, Russia, Russia” — the only problem is there will be no Russians or pro-Russian perspectives on that panel. That means thousands of politically attuned Americans will only hear one side of the story on Russia. Unfortunately, this phenomenon is par for the course across conferences and forums throughout the United States. However, it doesn’t have to be that way. A pro-Russia lobby can and should change that.
Examples of political conferences and forums where event-based outreach could be utilized and effective.
By sponsoring booths and participating in panels at such events, a pro-Russia lobby will have the opportunity to educate, inform, and provoke dialogue with both mover and shakers, as well as average Americans — which will help in shifting public opinion towards Russia. It will be an opportunity to promote better relations with Russia and important policy issues that impact Russia.
As ambitious as this strategy is, we need to maintain realistic expectations. Rome wasn’t built overnight and nor will Russia-U.S. relations be miraculously transformed from dusk to dawn. Lobbying is both a long-term strategy and investment that requires time and relationship building. That said, the strategy laid out in this column sets out the right plan of action to effectively lobby Russia’s interests in the United States. It prioritizes the activities and messaging that is going to educate and inform, provoke dialogue, shift public opinion, and effectuate policy shifts towards a better, brighter Russia-U.S. relationship. The next step is implementing it.