MOSCOW – GOP members of Congress sounded a newly conciliatory tone in meetings with Russian lawmakers and officials here Tuesday in a rare visit to Moscow and a preview of the looming summit between President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., told Russia's foreign minister that while Russia and the United States were competitors, "we don't necessarily need to be adversaries." Later on at the State Duma, the lower house of Parliament, members attending a plenary session greeted the Americans with applause.
"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 — 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 hours of meetings covered a wide range of topics in 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 Tuesday was Sergei 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 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 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."