WASHINGTON — Rep. Dana Rohrabacher met in Moscow earlier this month with former Russian Railways chief Vladimir Yakunin, who was added to the Treasury Department's sanctions list in 2014.
Rohrabacher told BuzzFeed News he met with Yakunin at a restaurant in central Moscow called Café Pushkin while in the Russian capital with a congressional delegation.
"Yeah, I had a breakfast with him at the Pushkin Café," Rohrabacher told BuzzFeed News. He said Yakunin invited him to "an international meeting, dialogue for peace, he was putting together on Rhodes. I really have no desire to go to Rhodes. I think I probably turned him down." Yakunin is the president of an organization called the World Public Forum, which holds an annual forum on the Greek island of Rhodes.
Rohrabacher said none of the other members of Congress on the trip joined him at the breakfast. Others on the trip included fellow California congressman Juan Vargas, New York congressman Brian Higgins, Arkansas congressman French Hill, and Rhode Island congressman David Cicilline, Rohrabacher said.
Yakunin, who became the chairman of state-owned rail company Russian Railways in 2005, suddenly left that position last year in a move that has been interpreted as Yakunin's having fallen from Russian President Vladimir Putin's favor. The two men's friendship goes back decades.
The U.S. Treasury Department put Yakunin on its list of Russian officials and Putin insiders sanctioned in 2014 in connection to the Ukraine crisis, describing Yakunin as a "close confidant of Putin."
Rohrabacher said it made no difference to him that Yakunin had been sanctioned by the U.S. government, and wasn't sure if he was aware of it beforehand.
"It’s possible that somebody mentioned it to me," Rohrabacher said. "It wouldn’t have made any difference anyway. I wasn’t doing business with him, I was listening to him." He said the Russian ambassador to the U.S. had facilitated the meeting. "The Russian ambassador asked me if I would meet with him in Moscow and said it was all about a peace conference," he said.
As for the U.S.'s Russia sanctions, "I'm working to undo those anyway," said Rohrabacher, who chairs the Europe subcommittee of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
Rohrabacher, a Republican, is one of the most outspoken voices in Congress in favor of deepening ties between Russia and the U.S., which he believes is necessary in order to fight the threat of Islamist extremism.
Rohrabacher's meeting with Yakunin is not his first visit to Moscow to attract controversy: A fact-finding mission he and other members of Congress took after the Boston Marathon bombing in 2013 involved enlisting action star Steven Seagal as a fixer, a long meeting with hawkish Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin, and a failed attempt to visit Chechnya.