Russia’s reputation in the United States is somewhat of a paradox.
On one hand, American media paints Russia as the ultimate mover and shaker of modern American politics. According to some in American media, Russia is the great divider, the great sower of discord — and the effectual king maker that brought Donald Trump to power in 2016. Pundits routinely lament the power of Russia’s influence, expressing disdain for its entente of hackers and trolls that supposedly has the power to sway public sentiment to unprecedented potential.
At the same time, those same pundits are hard pressed to point to the fruits of Russian influence on Russia’s behalf. For example, if Russia wields so much power in the United States — then naturally we would expect there to be a preponderance of Russia-friendly policies pouring out of Washington.
But as we know, the opposite is true. Russia, in fact, has no true political power, influence, or presence in the United States — and that comes with serious consequences. Instead of moving political mountains, Russia is a constant target of economic sanctions and diplomatic expulsions, bellicose political rhetoric, and calumniatory headlines that adversely affect Russia’s ability to grow economically and develop any sort of positive relationship with the United States. Sanctions alone have knocked off up to 6% of the Russian economy and caused Russia to lose more than $50 billion dollars since 2014.
The problem is, Russia hasn’t followed the same playbook as other countries like Israel, Saudi Arabia, and Ukraine who garner much friendlier policies through their well-oiled lobbying machines. Such countries spend millions of dollars on lobbying-related efforts and reap the rewards that follow in the form of lucrative trade agreements and support for their geopolitical goals.
Russia, on the other hand, has no semblance of a lobby in the United States to represent and voice its interests — which means Russia loses out on opportunities to makes its case on key issues from Syria, to Crimea, and beyond. In fact, it’s incredibly ironic. American national discourse often features Russia as the topic of conversation, but genuine Russian voices are almost nowhere to be found. This means that despite Russia having intellectually defensible and even appealing policy positions that can appeal to reasonable people, few if any people in the United States are actually hearing those arguments. Instead, Americans routinely hear a one-sided onslaught of disinformation that paints Russia as an evil, irrational actor with the sole purpose of “countering the United States” for the sake of countering the United States — which is simply not the case.
That one-sided presentation of Russia with no counterbalance has had a huge impact on Russia-U.S. relations. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the battle over public opinion, where Russia has been on the losing end of a PR war that rages on and has real implications for American foreign policy.
Take for example polls in 2005, that show 61 percent of Americans viewed Russia favorably back then. After years without a voice in the American political arena, 73 percent of Americans now view Russia unfavorably in 2019. It’s not a coincidence that this decline of Russia’s public image has coincided with a degradation in relations between the two countries.
Without a lobby to advocate and advance its positions, Russia has little chance of turning the tide towards more favorable relations with the United States. That’s because so much of America’s foreign policy posture relies on the compass of public opinion to guide it. Without a pro-Russia lobby to make well-reasoned arguments, like why the US should recognize Crimea — the American public will never hear those arguments and the American political establishment will never be persuaded to change course.
As Andrey Sushentsov of Valdai Club points out, Russia must “start to exert constructive influence on US policy for the sake of stability and predictability in relations with the US.” Better relations between the United States and Russia is something that both countries can and will benefit from. With more collaboration and less hostility, Russia and the United States can achieve more peace, security, and prosperity for themselves and for other countries across the world.
That’s why I recently founded the Russian Public Affairs Committee (Ru-PAC), an independent, non-profit and non-governmental organization dedicated to developing and strengthening the relationship between the United States and Russia by promoting the interests and security of both countries.
Our goal is to educate and inform the American public on issues related to Russia, and in doing so provoke constructive dialogue that might shift the public’s perception of Russia and effectuate better policies. We’re doing that by attending conferences/forums and organizing university-based events across the United States — where we can advance pro-Russia policies on the grassroots level. We’re also pursuing this goal by presenting the Russian perspective in ways it previously hasn’t been presented, which means submitting articles and Op-Eds to leading media outlets, appearing on podcasts and radio, and organizing issue-based campaigns.
We’re a pro-Russian lobbying organization through and through, but that doesn’t mean we are anti-American. Quite the opposite actually. We believe pro-cooperation with Russia is akin to being pro-American — and that’s because such a cooperation can indubitably benefit American businesses and make Americans safer.
It goes without saying that the task before us will certainly be a mountain to climb, considering the current level of distrust towards Russia; but as we all know, trust is not given freely — it’s earned. For that reason, our organization will do what it takes to earn America’s trust. We’ll operate transparently and by the book. We’ll advance well-reasoned, genuine arguments — and we’ll give Russia a much-needed voice within America’s political landscape.
Hunter Cawood is the founder of The Russian Public Affairs Committee. He holds a Master’s in Management from Saint Petersburg State University (Russia) as well as a Bachelor’s in Political Science from Kennesaw State University.