MOSCOW — Russia has an enthusiastic and perhaps unlikely friend in Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, the Republican leader of a congressional delegation here, who said Sunday that radical Islam has the United States and Russia “by the throat” and that the two countries had better learn to cooperate.
“The fact is, we face the same major challenges,” said Rohrabacher, a Californian who chairs the House Foreign Affairs subcommittee on Europe, Eurasia and emerging threats, and who brought House members here for nearly a week of meetings on the theme of Islamist terrorism, with a little fear-of-China thrown in.
Spurred by the bombing at the Boston Marathon in April, the delegation’s members met with the hard-line deputy prime minister, Dmitri Rogozin, and with top officials of Russia’s security service, the FSB. They then made a quick trip engineered by action-movie star Steven Seagal to Beslan, site of a 2004 school massacre that left about 380 people dead.
At a Sunday news conference, Rohrabacher and another Republican, Rep. Steve King of Iowa, fully endorsed the long-held Russian argument that Russia, Europe and the United States face a common enemy: radical Islam.
King said the United States should study the FSB’s anti-
terrorism tactics and adopt those that work. He said Russia seems to have a better intelligence operation in Boston than the United States does in the North Caucasus.
Republicans have not always been so inclined toward Russia. Last year, the Republican presidential nominee, Mitt Romney, called Russia the United States’ No. 1 geopolitical adversary. “That was an absurd statement,” Rohrabacher said Sunday.
Rohrabacher lambasted Americans who sided with Georgia in its 2008 war against Russia, although he didn’t name fellow Republican John McCain, the senator from Arizona, who was most prominent among the supporters of Georgia.
Rohrabacher once worked as a speechwriter for President Ronald Reagan, who famously called the Soviet Union an “evil empire.” Now Rohrabacher thinks Russia and the United States, jointly facing religious terrorism, also have a common antagonist in China — an argument that would find few adherents among Russian foreign policy experts.
Seagal, dressed in black and sporting a deep tan, said he arranged the Saturday trip to Beslan, in North Ossetia. Members of the group laid wreaths at the cemetery and the school gym and were treated to a “sumptuous” lunch, said Rep. Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.).
The Republicans said they had wanted to take up Seagal’s offer of a trip to Chechnya to meet with leader Ramzan Kadyrov, who has eradicated his Islamist opponents and brought stability to the once-war-torn region. Seagal — who said, “I consider myself an anti-terrorist” — dismissed allegations by rights activists that Kadyrov is responsible for torture and killings.
“I’m friends with many presidents of many countries,” he said, “and there are rumors about all of them.”
Cohen said he would have declined to go to Chechnya because of Kadyrov’s human rights record.
“We are at war against radical Islamic terrorists,” King said. “Anyone who eliminates our enemies, that saves lives.”
Added Rohrabacher: “Because people are accused of things, and guilty of things, it doesn’t mean you don’t talk to them.”
But House rules prohibited them from accepting a ride with Seagal in a private jet, Rohrabacher said, so they settled for a commercial flight to North Ossetia. Also on that trip were Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) and Rep. Paul Cook (R-Calif.), who left Russia before Sunday’s news conference.
The United States and Russia have been at loggerheads over the crisis in Syria — which came up briefly in the delegation’s meetings, Cohen said — and over Russia’s crackdown on nongovernmental organizations and U.S. support for democracy-building.
On Sunday, Cohen criticized Russia’s handling of the case against the punk rock group Pussy Riot. The group’s prosecution and the two-year sentences being served by two members — for a performance last year at a Moscow cathedral protesting Vladimir Putin — are far too harsh, he said. And when due process is so lacking, he said, relations between the countries cannot improve.
Rohrabacher and King said they disagreed. King said the cathedral “had been desecrated by those riots.”