A Republican congressional delegation is in Russia ahead of the US-Russia summit in Helsinki on July 16. The visit marks the first time a delegation of lawmakers have visited Russia since 2013, before the US accused Moscow of meddling in the 2016 presidential campaign and before Russia invaded and annexed Crimea in 2014. Their visit in Moscow came on the same day that the Senate Intelligence Committee issued a report backing the Intelligence Community Assessment that Russia intentionally meddled in the election with the intent of helping Donald Trump get elected.
The Washington Post reports that the legislators struck a conciliatory tone during their visit.
“I’m not here today to accuse Russia of this or that or so forth,” Shelby told Duma speaker Vyacheslav Volodin. “I’m saying that we should all strive for a better relationship.”
The Republicans’ meetings in Moscow — coming after the lawmakers visited St. Petersburg and took in the ballet “Sleeping Beauty” — helped set the tone for the July 16 Trump-Putin summit in Helsinki. Their Russian hosts said they hoped the Americans’ newfound willingness to meet marked a turning point after years of almost no direct contact between lawmakers in Washington and Moscow.
Lawmakers on both sides said that the more than four hours of meetings covered a wide range of topics on which they continued to disagree but that they remained committed to renewed dialogue.
Senator Richard Shelby is leading the eight-person delegation and told Sergey Lavrov, Russian Foreign Minister in a photo op, “We have a strained relationship, but we could have a better relationship between the U.S. and Russia because there’s some common interests around the world that we could hopefully work together on.” He continued, “We could be competitors—we are competitors. But we don’t necessarily need to be adversaries.”
The all Republican congressional delegation included Senators Richard Shelby (R-AL), John Thune (R-SD), Ron Johnson (R-WI), John Kennedy (R-LA), John Hoeven (R-ND), Steve Daines (R-MT) and Represenative Kay Granger (R-TX). John Huntsman, US Ambassador to Russia, joined the lawmakers in their meeting with Lavrov.
The delegation also met with the Russian Federation and the Duma. The Guardian reports that during a tour of the Duma, Shelby spoke warmly of his Russian counterparts.
“It looked like full attendance,” Shelby said of the Duma, which has been accused of being a rubber stamp parliament. “Everybody was there participating. Sometimes we need more of that in the US Senate and the US House.”
The Washington Post reports that participants from the two countries have differing opinions about how strenuously disagreements were discussed.
Sen. John Neely Kennedy (R-La.) described the meetings as “damn frank, very, very, very frank, no holds barred.”
“I asked our friends in Russia not to interfere in our elections this year,” Kennedy said. “I asked them to exit Ukraine and allow Ukraine to self-determine. I asked for the same thing in Crimea. I asked for their help in bringing peace to Syria. And I asked them not to allow Iran to gain a foothold in Syria.”
Duma member Vyacheslav Nikonov, on the other hand, said he had met with many American lawmakers in years past and that this meeting “was one of the easiest ones in my life.” The question of election interference, he said, was resolved quickly because “the question was raised in a general form.”
“One shouldn’t interfere in elections — well, we don’t interfere,” Nikonov said.
Former Russian ambassador to Washington, Sergey Kislyak, now a member of the upper house of parliment, was one of the Russians meeting with the Republican delegation on Tuesday. It was Kislyak’s communications with Michael Flynn, which led to him being ousted as Trump’s national security adviser. The Post reports that Kislyack observed that he knew many in the delegation from Washington.
“The main thing about all this is that our guests traveled here in order to talk,” Kislyak said. “This is probably good confirmation of a readiness to start a dialogue — something that we lacked for a long time.”
The lawmakers were hoping to meet with Putin. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov stated that the president had no time for the delegation but expressed delight in the visit. “We are delighted by the fact that this visit is taking place and that intensive contacts are taking place in Moscow now.”
Duma member Nikonov commented on the partisan nature of the delegation. “Since the Democrats actively accuse the Republicans of selling out to the Russians, it would naturally be strange if Democrats here were part of the group,” he said.
Why It Matters
The optics of having a delegation of only Republicans visit Moscow and speak glowingly about Russia on the day when the Senate Intelligence Committee says in a report, “Yes, the IC is correct in saying Russia meddled with the intention of helping elect Donald Trump” are bad to say the least.
Furthermore, because the GOP delegation requested no US press in the meeting, Russia Today had a field day reporting the words of the Americans who were visiting. The Kremlin has consistently beaten the White House in messaging in the negotiations about the US-Russia summit and the GOP delegation played right into their hands.
Seeing GOP lawmakers gushing about Russia and hoping for a meeting with Putin on the day before Independence Day, doesn’t boost their already badly tarnished image either.
This is a game of cat and mouse that is being played and the GOP is not the cat in this scenario.