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Two U.S. senators say Russia denied them visas for congressional delegation visit

Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) sits on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and is chairman of the panel’s subcommittee on Europe and regional security cooperation.
Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) sits on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and is chairman of the panel’s subcommittee on Europe and regional security cooperation. (Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg/file)

Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) said Monday that he was denied a visa to Russia for a visit as part of a bipartisan congressional delegation next week.

Then Tuesday, Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) said Russia blocked his entry into the country as well.

Johnson visited Russia in July 2018 as part of an eight-member delegation. At the time, the Wisconsin Republican and other lawmakers on the trip were sharply criticized back in the United States for striking a conciliatory tone in meetings with Kremlin-connected officials.

Russia’s decision to allow Johnson to travel with an all-Republican delegation on that trip but not in a bipartisan delegation next week has led some Democrats to view the Kremlin’s restrictions as focused on keeping congressional Democrats out. The party has led the charge in pushing for economic sanctions against Moscow and exposing its interference in the 2016 elections.

In a statement, Johnson called the visa denial “a petty affront” and said he had been working with U.S. Ambassador to Russia Jon Huntsman Jr. in the hopes that “direct dialogue with Russian parliamentarians could help set the stage for better future relations between our two nations.”

“Unfortunately, Russian officials continue to play diplomatic games with this sincere effort and have denied me entrance to Russia,” Johnson said. He pledged to “continue to advocate a strong and resolute response to Russian aggression — and frank dialogue when possible.”

Murphy said the “fragile relationship” between the United States and Russia is at a “potentially a perilous moment.”

“While I’ve been a tough critic of the Kremlin, I also believe it’s important to maintain dialogue especially during moments of tension. As the owners of the world’s two largest nuclear arsenals with the capacity to destroy each other many times over, we have a responsibility to keep the world safe and prevent conflict between the U.S. and Russia,” Murphy said in a statement.

The Russian Embassy in Washington posted its reasons for Johnson’s ban on Twitter early Tuesday. In a statement, it said that the senator never asked it for a visa and hadn’t informed the mission about his plans to visit.

“Senator Ron Johnson’s groundless accusations against Russia leave no doubt — he is ready not for a dialogue, but a confrontation. In his usual Russophobic manner he distorts Russian foreign policy and allows himself rude remarks. Based on that it is unlikely one can seriously take his statements of alleged intentions to restore direct dialogue with Russian parliamentarians,” the embassy said.

It did not immediately explain why Murphy was also barred entry.

Johnson and Murphy sit on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Johnson is chairman of the panel’s subcommittee on Europe and regional security cooperation. Murphy is ranking Democrat on the subcommittee overseeing Near East, South Asia, Central Asia, and counterterrorism.

Johnson’s office noted Monday that Johnson supported several pieces of legislation aiming “to hold Russia accountable for its aggression in Ukraine and its targeting of dissidents.” Among those measures was a bill that would have renamed the street outside of the Russian Embassy after slain Russian opposition leader Boris Nemtsov.

In his statement, Johnson chided Russian President Vladi­mir Putin for having chosen a path for Russia that is “a tragedy of historic proportions.” He listed a number of criticisms, but notably did not mention Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. election — an issue on which President Trump has been hesitant to criticize Putin.

“Instead of holding free and fair elections, respecting the rule of law, and integrating Russia’s economy with Western democracies, Putin has invaded Georgia, attempted to illegally annex Crimea, conducted war in eastern Ukraine where thousands have died, and supported a barbaric regime in Syria that has used chemical weapons on its own people in a war that has resulted in the deaths of hundreds of thousands,” Johnson said.

Earlier Monday, in a news conference at the conclusion of the Group of Seven meeting in Biarritz, France, Trump announced that he intended to invite Putin to the group’s 2020 summit in the United States. Russia was booted following the its 2014 annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula.

Karoun Demirjian and John Hudson in Washington, Michael Birnbaum in Biarritz, France, and Will Englund in Moscow contributed to this report.