2Early this week, two Senators—Ron Johnson (R-WI) and Chris Murphy (D-CT)—announced that the government of Russia had blocked them from entering the country for a planned official visit.
The snub represented an abrupt turn of events, especially for Johnson. Just last year, the Wisconsin Republican had visited Moscow and then worked to set up talks with members of the Russian Duma, people familiar with the outreach told The Daily Beast.
Those efforts haven’t blossomed. And neither have U.S.-Russia relations more broadly. The Kremlin’s decision to withhold visas from both Johnson and fellow Senate Foreign Relations Committee member Murphy comes just days after President Donald Trump continued to try and warm relations between the U.S. and Russia, declaring that the latter should be allowed back into the G7 and insisting that Vladimir Putin had outsmarted former President Barack Obama by annexing Crimea in 2014.
Trump’s remarks drew rebukes from Democrats on Capitol Hill. But before them, some Republicans—including Johnson—were working to bolster U.S.-Russia relations.
Last summer, Johnson joined a group of members of Congress on a trip to Moscow. When he returned, he said the U.S. sanctions on Russia didn’t seem to be working “all that well” and that the Kremlin’s interference in the 2016 U.S. elections was blown “way out of proportion.”
Johnson has also worked to connect U.S. Senators with their counterparts in the Duma, according to two sources familiar with his outreach. Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY), a staunch opponent of interventionist foreign policy, has also worked to arrange a meeting with Duma members about the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty and New START—two pacts between the U.S. and Russia designed to curb nuclear proliferation. The two sources said both Johnson and Paul worked on that effort, which did not come to fruition. A spokesperson for Johnson’s office, however, said that while the Wisconsinite was aware of Paul’s efforts, he did not participate in them. The spokesperson added that Johnson reached out to members of the Duma through official State Department channels with the general purpose of fostering dialogue.
The Trump administration has largely shunned or opposed nuclear arms treaties with Russia, arguing that they are obsolete and disadvantage America since Russia is not in actual compliance. The administration has withdrawn from the INF and it appears unlikely that the president will renegotiate the New START Treaty before it expires in February 2021. Doing so would require both congressional approval and collaborative non-proliferation talks between Russian and American officials. And, as of now, relations remain tense.
On Nov. 25, Russian troops opened fire on three Ukrainian ships sailing through the Kerch Strait, a narrow choke point between the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov. After firing on the ships, the Russians boarded them, seized them, and captured 23 crew members on board. The Kremlin alleged that the Ukrainian ships entered their territorial waters, though Ukraine says the ships were within their rights.
The incident outraged many Westerners. Several days later, Johnson and Murphy introduced a resolution condemning Russia’s actions. Johnson also called for freedom of navigation exercises in the Kerch Strait and for European governments to cancel the construction of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, which would dramatically expand how much gas Russia can ship into Europe. Paul, meanwhile, has urged his Senate colleagues to oppose sanctions on that pipeline project.
And now, Johnson has found himself persona non grata in Russia.
A spokesperson for Paul did not respond to this reporting on his efforts. A spokesperson for the Russian Embassy in Washington said Johnson and Murphy didn’t apply for visas. But a staffer familiar with their plans told The Daily Beast that the Russian Ministry for Foreign Affairs told the U.S. Embassy the pair wouldn’t be getting visas.
“It seems consistent to me with recent Russian efforts to penalize those it believes have played a part in sanctions or other actions against Russia,” said Jeffrey Edmonds, former director for Russia at the National Security Council. “I find it interesting that Russia is denying that it denied the visa. I’m not sure why the Russians would say Johnson hadn’t applied because then all he has to do is go back and publicly apply again.”
The Kremlin has not yet denied access to every U.S. senator interested in traveling there. A spokesman for Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT), who also planned to go on the trip, said he has applied for a Russian visa and is awaiting approval. As of now, Lee plans to travel to Moscow late next week to meet with U.S. Ambassador Jon Huntsman. A spokesperson for the State Department said the senators had planned to “assess the prospects for a more constructive relationship, including conducting Committee oversight relating to U.S. funding and sanctions.”
The Russian Embassy did not comment on why Lee did not face the same complications as Johnson and Murphy. But a Russian official told CNN that Johnson had been placed on a list of U.S. officials banned from traveling to Russia after his trip there last year. Johnson called the visa denial a “petty affront,” and the Russian Embassy responded by calling him “Russophobic.”
It is unclear if Murphy is on the same list. But he has been a reliable critic of Putin. In 2013, he traveled with the late Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) to Ukraine to support pro-democracy demonstrations. Lee, meanwhile, was one of a few senators to vote against legislation in 2017 that would have made it harder for President Trump to ease sanctions on the Kremlin.
In his capacity as ambassador, Huntsman often invited members of Congress to Moscow to meet with local business leaders and Russian officials. But in recent years, the Kremlin has blocked several US lawmakers, as well as one former official, from traveling to the country. In 2017, the government blocked Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH) for a planned trip with Johnson, who then decided to scrap the trip altogether out of solidarity with his Democratic colleague. Russian officials said that Shaheen, a top Hill advocate for tougher sanctions on Russia, had been placed on a “black list” they had created in response to U.S. sanctions, according to Politico. And in May, Russia denied a visa request made by Victoria Nuland, the former assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs.
“The Kremlin’s continued determination to ban U.S. lawmakers illustrates their unwillingness to engage in dialogue, diplomacy and compromise,” Shaheen said in a statement to The Daily Beast. “Congress has and will continue to prioritize legislative measures to hold the Russian government accountable for its aggression against their neighbors, and their persistent efforts to attack our elections and undermine U.S. democratic processes.”
—Adam Rawnsley contributed reporting.