In their Moscow meetings with members of Russia’s parliament last week, an all-Republican delegation of US members of Congress met with at least two individuals currently sanctioned by the United States.
In a meeting with the Duma, parliament’s lower house, Sen. Richard Shelby of Alabama reportedly told Duma speaker Vyacheslav Volodin, “I’m not here today to accuse Russia of this or that or so forth. I’m saying that we should all strive for a better relationship.” Volodin has been sanctioned since 2014 for Russia’s “illegitimate and unlawful” activities in Ukraine.
In their meeting with the Federation Council, parliament’s upper house, the group listened as Foreign Affairs Committee Chair Konstantin Kosachev complained about 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, all of whom voted in favor of the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act in the summer of 2017 — the legislation intended in part to make it more difficult for the president to lift sanctions on Russia.
The offices of the congressional delegation did not provide a full list of the members of parliament with whom the delegation met.
"I met with the foreign minister and the chairman — we did — of the Duma and these are high-up officials. We had very — there were eight of us — we had a very frank exchange of views," Shelby told reporters on Tuesday.
US law does not prohibit US officials from meeting with individuals who've been sanctioned, although it does prohibit providing services to them, and it is perhaps unsurprising that a congressional delegation meeting with high-level Russians would include meetings with sanctioned individuals — the point of the sanctions put in place last April was to target those perceived to be close to the Kremlin.
And a meeting is a far cry from a removal from the sanctions list. “The only way names are likely to come off the list is if 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 meeting raised eyebrows in Washington. In an email, one Democratic congressional aide said that “Committee leadership did hear from stakeholders who agreed meeting with sanctioned Duma members was simply the wrong move.”
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 help bring about 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 do something and nobody ever sits back and analyzes, 'Well, is it working?’ And I think you'd be hard-pressed to say that sanctions against Russia are really working all that well.”
"I am not suggesting we relax sanctions. We need to approach Russia from the standpoint of strength and resolve, and we need to take a look at what's actually working and the whole purpose of the sanctions is to get Russia to modify their behavior. So that's all I've been suggesting. I think it's been in some quarters misinterpreted and misreported. I'm not going weak on Russia here," Johnson insisted to BuzzFeed News on Tuesday.
Johnson is hardly the first to wonder whether sanctions are the most effective tool to change Russian behavior — some have even argued that the sanctions intended to hit Putin’s inner circle, far from driving a wedge between Putin and the powerful, have pushed the oligarchs more firmly under the Kremlin’s corner. But he is the first to come 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 have a good relationship.
“I’ve certainly seen at least Ron Johnson’s quote about 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 all the congressionally mandated sanctions and that it would be premature at best to make this kind of statement, but maybe not surprising since he was just spoon-fed some propaganda while in Moscow.”
“I think on the face of it, it’s a bad look,” said Brian O’Toole, who worked on sanctions, including those put in place 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 good actors. It just looks weird.” That’s particularly true, he continues, because Congress significantly constrained the president’s ability to lift sanctions last 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 about 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 New American Security. “Interesting 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.
Emma Loop contributed reporting.