Foreign propaganda, which is legal lobbying as long as it’s disclosed, pokes into everyday life in odd ways. A few years ago, numerous D.C. buses and Metro stations were suddenly festooned with an awareness campaign for a decades-past war crime in Azerbaijan, the Khojaly Massacre. Regular D.C. commuters were left to wonder what the posters were about—in this case, the geopolitical rivalry between Azerbaijan, an oil-rich dictatorship, and its politically powerful neighbor, Armenia. According to a public-relations staffer whose firm turned down the work, the campaign actually had a primary target audience of one: the wife of a top official in Azerbaijan’s government, who frequently came to D.C. for shopping trips.
This is simply the way things work in a superpower’s capital city. There is the Washington most of its residents live in, and then there is the one underneath, where allies and enemies jockey for influence and information. You think you’re living in an episode of Veep, and you find out you’re living in an episode of The Americans.
“Welcome to Washington—you’re not in Kansas anymore,” Tom Nichols, a national-security expert who teaches at the Naval War College, told me. When he was a Senate adviser, he recalled, he and his now-ex-wife, who worked for the CIA, could not talk about their work over dinner due to their differing clearances. “It’s the weirdest city in the world,” he said. “I would never say anything out loud in D.C. that I wouldn’t want to see on the news crawl in Times Square.”
There is a line, Nichols and other security experts are quick to note, between legitimate and illegitimate foreign activity, between information-gathering and intelligence work, between a lobbyist and a bagman. No one should be surprised or scandalized that the Russian ambassador attends public events and seeks meetings with lawmakers—that’s his job, and there’s nothing wrong with it. “This is what you do as a diplomat,” Andras Simonyi, a former Hungarian ambassador to the U.S., told me. “If you’re an ambassador and you’re not trying to meet CEOs and senators and presidential candidates, you’re crazy.”
Still, Simonyi said, one should be careful what one gossips about with a Russian at a D.C. party, and what compliments one takes at face value. They are famous for their skill at cultivating the naive. “‘Ah, you’re such a charming young lady, why don’t you come to the celebration we’re having for the national day of Russia?’ Don’t ever accept an invitation from the Russian embassy unless you know what you’re doing,” he said.
Certain countries’ ambassadors are D.C.-famous for their socializing—these days the master is Yousef Al Otaiba of the United Arab Emirates, whose country’s oil wealth bankrolls star-studded galas, donations to charities and think tanks, and constant schmoozing at the highest levels. In 2013, Otaiba threw a 50th birthday party for the MSNBC host Joe Scarborough; this January, he hosted an Alfalfa Dinner after-party at Cafe Milano whose attendees included Rex Tillerson, Jeff Bezos, presidential adviser Gary Cohn, and multiple members of the Cabinet and Congress. Those who have taken his private-jet junkets to the Formula One Grand Prix in Abu Dhabi include a former Air Force chief of staff.