Ketchum is far from alone in representing foreign governments and their leaders. In 2011, the Washington public relations firm Brown Lloyd James helped arrange a profile in Vogue of Asma al-Assad, the wife of Syria's president, Bashar al-Assad. The story, headlined "A Rose in the Desert," was later removed from Vogue's website and the magazine's editor, Anna Wintour, issued a statement deploring the actions of the Assad government.
Another firm, Sanitas International, represents both Abdullah Abdullah and Ashraf Ghani, foes in an election in Afghanistan, according to State Department filings. China has 11 different public relations representatives.
Public relations experts said there was a long history of American firms working for controversial foreign governments. Guy J. Golan, a professor of public relations and public diplomacy at Syracuse, compared Ketchum's business relationship with Russia to that of public relations firms who worked for tobacco companies as the dangers of smoking were revealed.
"There are some who would argue that Russia is just as legitimate a client as Philip Morris cigarettes," Mr. Golan said.
From Russia's standpoint, the Ketchum relationship makes perfect sense, Mr. McFaul said. He pointed to the Winter Olympics in Sochi this year, which cost tens of billions of dollars and were in part a public relations exercise. The Games were seen, Mr. McFaul said, as a way "to introduce the new Russia to the world." And Ketchum's fees are tiny in comparison with a production like Sochi, so it is logical to retain the company to continue to help with its image and business interests.
Angus Roxburgh, a former Ketchum consultant and journalist for the BBC and The Economist, recounted his experiences working with the company in his 2011 book, "The Strongman: Vladimir Putin and the Struggle for Russia."
Ketchum worked with members of the Russian leader's inner circle, Mr. Roxburgh wrote. The Russian officials, he said, were initially convinced they could pay for better coverage, or intimidate journalists into it. They were eventually persuaded to take reporters to dinner instead. But after the murder of the journalist Anna Politkovskaya, a critic of the Kremlin who was assassinated in her Moscow apartment block under mysterious circumstances, they stopped engaging with the news media, because they did not want to face questions about her death.
"As the Politkovskaya murder was followed by the Litvinenko murder," Mr. Roxburgh wrote, referring to another mysterious death of a Kremlin critic in London, "and then by the Russian invasion of Georgia, I began to wonder whether the very reason the Kremlin had decided to take on a Western P.R. agency was because they knew in advance that their image was about to nose-dive."
Read MoreEU wields Russia sanctions threat but timing vague
The company still works with Mr. Putin's closest advisers, according to current and former employees of Ketchum. Some of its work is relatively mundane, like fielding press inquiries for Russian officials and liaising with pro-Russia groups. In the State Department filings that detail Ketchum's work, prominent names like Arnold Schwarzenegger and Henry Kissinger appear alongside policy analysts, politicians and United States government officials. In the filings, the company said it worked with Time magazine to have Mr. Putin named the magazine's Person of the Year in 2007.
Ketchum also monitors press clippings, and provides a daily analysis of perspectives on Russia from Washington, Brussels and New York. It tracks sentiment on Capitol Hill, particularly the congressional committees that might affect Russia. It writes strategic plans on specific issues.
Mr. Roxburgh, who did not respond to multiple requests for an interview, said to The Daily Beast this year that Ketchum's aim, to make Russia more attractive to investors, "means helping them disguise all the issues that make it unattractive: human rights, invasions of neighboring countries, etc."
During Russia's war with Georgia in 2008, there was a movement in Ketchum's New York office to drop Russia as a client, according to a former Ketchum employee who requested anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the firm. Those who expressed concern were placated by the Washington office, the employee said.
Ms. Jeavons declined to address internal discussions at Ketchum. And while she defended her firm's work with Russia, she acknowledged that it was a complicated relationship.
"Where we can help facilitate communication, at the end of the day that can only help," she said. "I mean this is why I'm in this business. It's not always perfect, not always black and white, but I think it helps."