A top Republican senator shocked his colleagues when he suggested, after returning from a trip to Moscow with fellow GOP lawmakers, that U.S. sanctions targeting Russia were not working and the Kremlin’s election interference was really no big deal.
Now, the senators who joined him for the series of meetings with senior Russian officials are sharply disputing not only Sen. Ron Johnson’s (R-WI) conclusions—but also his account of what went on behind closed doors in Moscow.
“I think the sanctions are hurting them badly both in terms of their pocketbooks and in terms of their status in the world,” Sen. John Kennedy (R-LA), who joined the congressional delegation last week, said in an interview. “I don’t want to over-state this, but these were very tense meetings.”
In public, the American lawmakers directly appealed to Russia for a better relationship. But in private, according to the senators who attended the meetings, they confronted their Russian counterparts over a host of issues, most notably Moscow’s interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
That’s why Johnson raised eyebrows when, after returning from the nine-day trip with five of his fellow GOP senators, he suggested that the U.S. should evaluate whether the sanctions currently in place are successfully harming Russian interests because “you'd be hard-pressed to say that sanctions against Russia are really working all that well.” He also appeared to downplay the significance of election interference, saying it was “not the greatest threat to our democracy” and “we’ve blown it way out of proportion.”
His colleagues, who attended the same meetings with Russian lawmakers and Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, had a different impression. Sen. Richard Shelby (R-AL), who led the congressional delegation, said in an interview that he and his colleagues told their Russian counterparts that “the worst thing you can do is try to meddle in our elections.” The senators also disputed Johnson’s argument about the effectiveness of sanctions.
“The Russian leadership that we met with talked about the sanctions and how they were making no difference, but then they kept talking about the sanctions,” Kennedy said when asked about Johnson’s comments.
“And we were pretty direct. I was pretty direct that if they meddle with our election this fall, they’re going to get a double dose of those sanctions,” Kennedy added. “Does that mean they’re going to stop? No. I don’t know what they’re going to do. But I thought it was important for us to deliver the message that we know what they’re doing, and we don’t appreciate it.”
Sen. Jerry Moran (R-KS), who accompanied the group in Moscow, suggested that Johnson could have drawn his conclusion from a meeting that the senators had with American business leaders in Russia. According to Moran, those Americans expressed a desire that the sanctions be “uniform and that Europe and the United States need to be on the same page when it comes to sanctions.”
“That, to me, was the message that the business community delivered—that we’ve got to all do this together, that unilateral sanctions don’t work as well, and that they damage U.S. business interests,” Moran said. “My view is exactly what I conveyed to Russian officials, which is that if you want the sanctions to disappear or diminish, it requires a change in your behavior. A significant portion of changing the relationship is whether or not there should be sanctions.”
Last year, the House and Senate overwhelmingly approved a tough new sanctions regime that targeted Russia’s defense and intelligence sectors. It also directed the Treasury Department to release a public list of Russian oligarchs closely connected with Russian President Vladimir Putin. The Trump administration has been reticent to fully implement those sanctions, spurring outrage from both Democrats and Republicans.
Johnson, for his part, appeared to walk back some of his earlier remarks. He told The Daily Beast that he was not suggesting that sanctions be weakened, but rather, “we need to take a look at what works. We need to get something that works to actually change their behavior. I’m not talking about lessening them at all.”
Kennedy said he and his colleagues received briefings from officials at the U.S. embassy in Moscow ahead of the meetings. During those briefings, senators were informed that the Russian officials were under the impression that only Democrats were critical of Russia for its election-meddling and its incursions into eastern Europe and the Middle East.
“I wanted to disabuse them of that notion,” Kennedy said. “I think there’s a consensus in Congress that if Russia meddles again, then we’ll double down on the sanctions.”
The meetings lasted from 8:30 in the morning until 7:00 at night. The Russians served the Americans water and coffee but no food, according to Kennedy, who said the meeting rooms were intricately decorated.
The senators said the most tense meetings were with Lavrov—the foreign minister—and with the leader of the Duma and some of his deputies. The conversations with Russian senators (members of the Council of the Federation) were more cordial.
“He’s a bully, and he tried to bully us,” Kennedy said of Lavrov. “But we made our point. And they understand where we stand.”
During the meeting with members of the Duma, senators spoke for two or three minutes and the Duma chairman, Vyacheslav Volodin, would respond for at least 10 minutes each time. Volodin would not permit his deputies to speak for more than a few seconds.
The senators confronted the Russian officials about election interference, the Kremlin’s annexation of Crimea, its incursions into Ukraine and eastern Europe, and its support for Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad.
Every time, the response was the same.
“The answer was, ‘it never happened,’” said Moran.
“To some extent, the meetings on their end were orchestrated. It was clear that they had what appeared to me to be a strategy. They had an answer for everything, which was: deny, deny, deny,” Kennedy added.
Shelby, for his part, wasn’t surprised that the Russian lawmakers, following Putin’s lead, continued to deny behavior that has drawn international condemnation.
“Listen, I’ve been around since I was a kid and Stalin was running things. Have you ever known them to admit anything? I mean, it’s the Russian view of the world. But the question of can we improve it—they will have to earn their way. We’ve got a lot of grievances,” Shelby said.
Shelby would not go as far as to say that U.S. sanctions were “working,” citing Russia’s refusal to change its behavior. But he said the punishments are “pinching” the Russian economy.
On the heels of the Russia trip, the senior senator, who formerly chaired the intelligence committee, delivered a warning to President Donald Trump ahead of his meeting with Putin next week in Helsinki: “President Trump needs to be careful with Putin. Don’t give away much. And don’t rely on a lot of his promises. … They’ve got to earn [a better relationship]. I hope the president knows this when he meets with him in Helsinki, and knowing who he’s dealing with when he sits across the table.”
Shelby himself was the center of attention ahead of the Moscow trip after he appeared to justify Russia’s interference in the 2016 election, saying: “We’ve done a lot of things, too.” He later clarified that he was not excusing Russia’s meddling, and upon his return to Washington, he took a much harder line against Moscow.