A group of Republican senators met with Russia’s foreign minister in Moscow on Tuesday, in an apparent bid to ease tensions between the U.S. and Russia.
“We have a strained relationship, but we could have a better relationship between the U.S. and Russia because there’s some common interests around the world that we could hopefully work together on,” Sen. Richard Shelby (R-AL), who is leading the delegation, told Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov during a photo opportunity ahead of the meeting.
“We could be competitors—we are competitors. But we don’t necessarily need to be adversaries,” Shelby added.
Ahead of the trip, Shelby and his counterparts said they expected to confront top Russian officials about Moscow’s interference in the 2016 presidential election, among other issues. But Shelby, the former chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, appeared to justify Russia’s interference, saying: “We’ve done a lot of things too.” He later clarified that he was not excusing Russia’s behavior.
Jon Huntsman, the U.S. ambassador to Russia, joined the Republican lawmakers in their meeting with Lavrov. Among top Trump administration officials, Huntsman has been among the most vocal critics of Russia and has won praise from both sides of the political aisle in Washington.
The congressional delegation included Sens. Jerry Moran (R-KS), Steve Daines (R-MT), Ron Johnson (R-WI), John Kennedy (R-LA), John Thune (R-S.D.), John Hoeven (R-N.D.) and Rep. Kay Granger (R-TX). The meeting comes ahead of an expected summit between President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki on July 16.
“We’re hoping that coming out of the Putin-Trump meeting in Helsinki, it will be the beginning, maybe, of a new day. We will have to wait and see and go from there,” Shelby added. “But we recognize that the world is better off, I believe, if Russia and the U.S. have fewer tensions.”
The American lawmakers later met with members of the Duma and the Council of the Federation, Russia’s lower and upper houses. Kennedy said that meeting was “damn frank, very very very frank, no holds barred.” A Duma lawmaker later said “this was one of the easiest” sit-downs he ever had with American officials.
Kennedy also said he asked the Russians “not to interfere in our election this year. I ask them to exit Ukraine, help bring peace to Syria, not allow Iran to gain foothold in Syria.”
The two countries, while they have been at odds over Moscow’s interference in the 2016 presidential election and its incursions into eastern Europe and the Middle East, have at least expressed a desire to cooperate in the global fight against terrorism.
Trump himself has been reticent to outwardly criticize Putin, and he has repeatedly cast doubt about the U.S. intelligence community’s conclusion about Russia’s meddling in the 2016 campaign. His administration, though, has implemented sanctions, as mandated by Congress, that target Russia’s defense and intelligence sectors. The U.S. has also expelled Russian diplomats and spies in solidarity with European allies after the U.S. blamed Moscow for a nerve-agent attack on a former Russian spy in the United Kingdom.
The Kremlin said Putin was too busy to meet with the American lawmakers.