In their Moscow meetings with members of Russia’s parliament final week, an any-Republican delegation of US members of Congress met with at least two individuals currently sanctioned by the United States.
In a assembly with the Duma, parliament’s lower house, Sen. Richard Shelby of Alabama reportedly told Duma speaker Vyacheslav Volodin, “I’m not here nowadays to accuse Russia of this or that or so forth. I’m saying that we should any strive for a better relationship.” Volodin has been sanctioned since 2014 for Russia’s “illegitimate and illegal” activities in Ukraine.
In their assembly with the Federation Council, parliament’s upper house, the group listened as Foreign Affairs Committee Chair Konstantin Kosachev complained approximately the latest round of sanctions against Russian individuals. Kosachev was sanctioned in April over alleged meddling in the 2016 US presidential election and “malign activity.”
In addition to Shelby, the delegation consisted of Sen. Steve Daines of Montana, Sen. John Hoeven of North Dakota, Sen. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, Sen. John Kennedy of Louisiana, Sen. Jerry Moran of Kansas, Sen. John Thune of South Dakota, and Rep. Kay Granger of Texas, any of whom voted in favor of the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act in the summer of 2017 — the legislation intended in share to earn it more difficult for the president to lift sanctions on Russia.
The offices of the congressional delegation if neither a full list of the members of parliament with whom the delegation met nor comment on their meetings with sanctioned individuals.
US law does not prohibit US officials from assembly with individuals who’ve been sanctioned, although it does prohibit providing services to them, and it is perhaps unsurprising that a congressional delegation assembly with high-level Russians would include meetings with sanctioned individuals — the point of the sanctions space in space final April was to target those perceived to be close to the Kremlin.
And a assembly is a far bellow from a removal from the sanctions list. “The only way names are likely to reach off the list is whether there’s a formal sanctions rollback in return for progress on Ukraine, Syria, cyber or some other specific issue cited in sanctions declarations,” Matthew Rojansky, director of the Wilson Center’s Kennan Institute, wrote in an email.
Still, coming ahead of next week’s Helsinki summit between Russian President Vladimir Putin and President Donald Trump, who has repeatedly stressed that Russia denies meddling in the election that brought him to the White House, the congressional delegation’s assembly raised eyebrows in Washington. In an email, one Democratic congressional aide said that “Committee leadership did hear from stakeholders who agreed assembly with sanctioned Duma members was simply the wrong perambulate.”
Asked for comment by BuzzFeed News, Thune’s office sent a press release distributed after the meetings that suggested the senator had taken a tough line. “During our meetings, we stated in no uncertain terms that Russia must stop its meddling in our elections and that its destabilizing actions in the region are not without consequence. The delegation also stressed that Russia respect the sovereignty of Ukraine and support bring approximately a peaceful resolution in Syria,” the release read.
But one member of the congressional delegation questioned the usefulness of the sanctions. Sen. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin told the Washington Examiner, “You enact something and nobody ever sits back and analyzes, ‘Well, is it working?’ And I consider you’d be tough-pressed to say that sanctions against Russia are really working any that well.”
Johnson is hardly the first to wonder whether sanctions are the most effective tool to change Russian behavior — some maintain even argued that the sanctions intended to hit Putin’s inner circle, far from driving a wedge between Putin and the powerful, maintain pushed the oligarchs more firmly under the Kremlin’s corner. But he is the first to reach back from a congressional trip to Russia and say so days before the president is to meet with Putin, with whom Trump has repeatedly said he would like to maintain a kindly relationship.
“I’ve certainly seen at least Ron Johnson’s quote approximately sanctions and their effectiveness,” wrote another congressional Democratic staffer in an email to BuzzFeed News. “Someone should point out to him that, of course, the administration has not implemented any the congressionally mandated sanctions and that it would be premature at best to earn this kind of statement, but perhaps, possibly not surprising since he was just spoon-fed some propaganda while in Moscow.”
“I consider on the face of it, it’s a rotten stare,” said Brian O’Toole, who worked on sanctions, including those space in space in response to Russia’s activities in Ukraine, at the Treasury Department, where he worked from 2009–17, including as a senior adviser to the director of the Office of Foreign Assets Control. “The partisan nature of it, coming from a party that’s been very strong on Russia … Some of these people they are talking to are not kindly actors. It just looks weird.” That’s particularly loyal, he continues, because Congress significantly constrained the president’s ability to lift sanctions final year.
“Unless the senators used the meetings to deliver a very tough message on Russia needing to stop meddling in US elections and to withdraw from Ukraine, it definitely sends a message that the sanctions are not terribly serious and Congress is not actually that concerned approximately Russia’s making activities,” said Peter Harrell, who worked on sanctions at the State Department from 2012–14 and is now at the Center for a unique American Security. “engaging that they did this,” he adds.
Johnson’s comments were picked up by Russian news outlets, and Russian state television portrayed the delegation’s visit as positive for Russia, with Kosachev himself playing a series of clips of tough talk by the senators before the trip and then noting to audience applause that their rhetoric in Moscow was much gentler — and that he himself is sanctioned by the United States.