“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.
The U.S. delegation, Russian lawmakers said, represented the most significant congressional visit to Russia after about a decade in which such visits were few and generally low-key. For more than a year, Russian officials have been voicing frustration that the improvement in U.S.-Russian ties that Trump promised in his presidential campaign had yet to materialize. With this week’s congressional trip, last week’s visit by White House national security adviser John Bolton and the upcoming Helsinki summit, Russians now hope that change is finally near.
Among the Russians meeting with the Republicans on Tuesday was Sergey Kislyak — the former Russian ambassador to Washington whose communications with Michael Flynn led to the former national security adviser’s downfall. Kislyak, now a member of the upper house of parliament, noted in an interview after the meeting that many of the Republicans sitting across the table were already known to him 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.”
Participants offered conflicting accounts of the degree to which they aired U.S.-Russian disagreements. 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.
U.S. intelligence officials have stated unequivocally that they believe that Russian agents sought to influence the 2016 presidential election. Trump has continued to cast doubt on those conclusions.
The American lawmakers discussed the upcoming Helsinki summit and other matters with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, his ministry said. At the meeting at the Federation Council — the upper house of parliament — Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Konstantin Kosachev raised Russia’s grievances about new American sanctions and the U.S. seizure of Russian diplomatic properties. While some members of the U.S. delegation speculated before the trip that they might see Putin himself, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Tuesday that the president had no time for the visitors.
“We are delighted by the fact that this visit is taking place and that intensive contacts are taking place in Moscow now,” Peskov said.
In December, two Republicans canceled a planned trip to Russia after Moscow denied a visa to Democratic Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (N.H.), an outspoken critic of Russia. This time, only Republicans were in attendance, including Sen. John Thune (S.D.), the third-ranking Republican in the Senate.
The fact that the American delegation was not bipartisan was not lost on the Russians.
“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,” Nikonov said.
Natalia Abbakumova contributed to this report.