The recent gas crisis showcased Russia's new "public diplomacy" in the use of public relations companies and the style of its EU ambassador. But the Kremlin-Gazprom brand has its competitors and remains tricky to sell.
The Kremlin hired Brussels-based PR firm GPlus back in 2006 to update media relations. Russia's gas monopoly, Gazprom, signed a separate deal for media handling and government advocacy in 2007. The annual contracts, due for renewal in spring and autumn, cover GPlus work in Brussels and Paris as well as subcontracts with consultancies Dimap in Berlin and Reti in Rome.
GPlus says its pro-Russia lobbying with EU institutions is worth less than €200,000 a year. Competitors estimate the contracts are worth €3 million to €5 million a year in total in fees alone, excluding expenses for hiring venues for press conferences or lunches with contacts.
GPlus specialises in hiring former EU officials and eminent journalists. Gregor Kreuzhuber, who leads the Gazprom account, was previously European Commission industry spokesman. Peter Witt, a senior advisor for both clients, is a retired German deputy ambassador to the EU. Angus Roxburgh covered the war in Chechnya for the BBC.
No one takes a pay cut to join the PR sector. A mid-ranking EU official such as Mr Kreuzhuber would take home at least €6,000 a month in his previous job and a man such as Mr Witt €7,000 a month.
GPlus has educated the Kremlin on using Western media. On the 2008 Georgia war, it pushed for press visits to South Ossetia so that TV in Europe had more to show than rampaging Russian tanks.
On the gas crisis, as early as October 2008, reporters Googleing "gas" and "Ukraine" were led to pro-Gazprom website gazpromukrainefacts.com. In January, Brussels journalists received almost daily emails with easy-to-paste quotes and dial-in details for phone conferences with Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's spokesman, Dmitry Peskov. GPlus staff mingled at EU press events to spin breaking news.
The company's pro-Putin profile has not ruled out work for other clients, such as Microsoft, Toyota or Visa. GPlus has grown from two to 55 staff in three years, with a net gain of five people in 2008. "For a company like ours, it's perfectly normal to be associated with a client [Russia] that's in the spotlight," GPlus partner Hans Kribbe said.
Our man in Brussels
Russia's EU ambassador, Vladimir Chizhov, works in tandem on Brussels intelligence gathering and media handling. With regular GPlus meetings, the media-savvy diplomat knows for example that the Financial Times' Brussels bureau chief is the brother of the paper's London editor.
Unlike his predecessor Mikhail Fradkov, Mr Chizhov chats to press on the phone, cracks jokes in English, fields human rights questions at seminars and often pops up in black tie at social events, such as the Czech EU presidency ball. "Public diplomacy is an integral part of foreign policy and that's what I'm entrusted to do," the ambassador said.
The Russian EU mission has grown from under 20 to over 120 staff since Mr Chizhov took over in 2005. Just a handful play a public role. Colonel Vladimir Kuvshinov, the councillor for emergency planning, stands out for his energetic schedule in meeting security officials from EU states.
Moscow's EU message is amplified by PR firm Hill and Knowlton. The company's Brussels chief, Elaine Cruikshanks, promotes Gazprom offshoot Nord Stream as a "purely commercial" venture and a "strategic prospect" for EU energy diversity. In the past, Hill and Knowlton flew MEPs to Siberia on a private jet for Russian oil giant Rosneft.
But if Moscow outclassed Kiev on 2009 gas diplomacy, the tools of modern PR are also at work against it. Hill and Knowlton's sister company in the WPP media group, Burson-Marsteller, represents the lawyer of jailed anti-Kremlin oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovksy in what Ms Cruikshanks calls a "competing brand."
US consultancy APCO and Swedish firm Kreab broadly follow US State Department and Swedish Foreign Ministry policy. Kreab ended co-operation with Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili in late 2007. But some senior staff hold strong ideological convictions and still freelance for the "enemies of Putin" club.
APCO represents the shareholders of Mr Khodorkovksy's old oil firm Yukos amid a €23 billion anti-Moscow lawsuit in the Hague. It is interested in taking on clients such as Azerbaijan or Turkmenistan - post-Soviet regimes it sees as keen "to come out of the darkness" into a new era of EU and US relations.
And if the European Commission appears too Kremlin-friendly to EU states such as Poland or Lithuania, behind the talk of "strategic partnership" some commission analysts look at Moscow with dispassionate eyes.
"The problem with selling Russia is that it's a flawed product," one EU official said. "It's a vast country with a falling population that neighbours China. It's armed forces are in a poor condition. With the price of oil forecast to stay low, we are worried about the stability of the rouble and Russia's ability to meet budgetary commitments in 2009."