By Kevin Bogardus - 04/20/13 12:20 PM EDT
Russia’s lobbying team could be called upon to help repair relations with the United States now that the Chechen ties of the Boston bombing suspects are in the limelight.
Tensions between Russia and the United States were building before the Boston Marathon bombing, with disagreements over Syria and human rights playing out in sharp public statements.
Now, given the revelations about suspects in the Boston Marathon attack, the Russian government might be eager to dial down the temperature.
Observers say as the U.S. media delves further into the bombers’ past, it could highlight the struggle in Chechnya — often a source of alleged human rights abuses by the Russian government.
“Their background puts a spotlight on what's going in Chechnya, the separatist struggle there, into the forefront of people's minds here,” said Mieke Eoyang, director of the national security program at Third Way. “If the media starts focusing on why the [bombers’] family left Chechnya perhaps to escape oppression, that's not a great story for the Russian Federation.”
Though Chechen in ethnicity, the suspected bombers’ ties to the region are loose. The suspects — brothers Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev — reportedly arrived in the United States in 2001 as refugees from Kyrgyzstan.
Like other major world powers, Russia has a sizable lobbying force in Washington that it turns to in times of crisis.
Ketchum, a public relations firm, is contracted to represent the Russian Federation. Through a subcontract with Ketchum, the law and lobby firm Alston & Bird has been tasked to advise Russia's government as it maneuvers in Washington.
It’s lucrative work for both firms. Ketchum reported last year taking in more than $2.1 million from the Russian Federation, according to Justice Department records. Alston earned more than $271,000 in roughly that same time period via its subcontract with Ketchum.
A spokeswoman for Ketchum said the firm has long represented Russia and “will continue to do so.”
“In response to your inquiry, yes, we represent the Russian Federation. We’ve worked on their behalf for seven years and continue to do so,” said Jackie Burton, a Ketchum spokeswoman.
A spokeswoman for Alston & Bird declined to comment when asked about the firm's contract with Ketchum to advise Russia.
Ketchum also has a contract with energy giant Gazprom, which is controlled by the Russian government. The PR firm has a subcontract with Venable to work on the energy company account, according to Justice records.
Lobbyists for Russia will have to navigate a tense period in U.S. relations.
The country has often been an obstacle in the international pressure campaign against Iran’s nuclear program. In addition, Russia has backed Syrian President Bashar Assad staying in power despite calls from President Obama and others for him to step aside.
U.S.-Russia relations “are definitely tense. The return of [Russian President Vladimir] Putin has certainly not helped. There are a lot of areas where they could be more helpful,” Eoyang said.
Business groups pushed hard last year for Congress to approve permanent normal trade relations with Russia. That legislation passed, but was coupled with a human-rights measure named after Sergei Magnitsky, a lawyer who died in Russian custody after trying to expose corruption.
The two countries traded barbs after the United States released a list of 18 Russians barred from traveling to America over alleged human rights abuses, as required by the Magnitsky law. In turn, Russia banned 18 Americans from visiting Russia.
Nevertheless, both U.S. and Russian governments are working to improve trade, which is benefiting companies, according to Randi Levinas, executive vice president at the U.S.-Russia Business Council.
“The private sector obviously sees real value in that engagement, and it's not something that makes splashy news,” said Levinas in an email from Moscow.
Ketchum has sought to attract foreign investment to Russia. The PR firm has looked to set up interviews between reporters and Russian officials as well as place op-eds, according to Justice records. The firm also runs a website and Twitter feed, called Modern Russia, on behalf of the Russian government.
Alston & Bird has helped Ketchum on the Russian account and recently signed a new nine-month contract worth $180,000, according to records filed this January. Alston agreed “to provide advisory services on policy and legislative developments of interest” to the Russian Federation.
Since the attack, Russia has pledged to help the United States in its investigation.
Putin “strongly condemned this barbaric crime and expressed his belief that the fight against terrorism requires the coordination of the global community’s efforts, according to a Russian embassy statement. He “stressed that the Russian Federation will be ready, if necessary, to assist in the US authorities’ investigation."
Chechen leadership, meanwhile, have pushed back any connection between the country and the bombers.
“Any attempt to make the connection between Chechnya and [the two suspects] if they are guilty, [is] in vain,” said Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov, considered pro-Kremlin, in a statement on Friday. “It is necessary to seek the roots of evil in America.”
Some express caution before coming to any conclusions on how the bombing could affect relations between the United States and Russia.
“The impact on U.S.-Russia relations is hard to tell. We have to see what pans out here,” Eoyang said. “First contact intelligence is often wrong. We will have to see all the facts first.”
— Julian Pecquet contributed to this report.