U.S. Sen. Jerry Moran promised he’d deliver a stern message about election interference to Russian leaders during his trip to the country with other Republican lawmakers, but comments from Russian officials suggest the message may have been muddled.
The Kansas Republican was one of eight lawmakers to participate in the GOP-only trip to Russia during Congress’ July 4 break, a visit that was organized by Jon Huntsman, the U.S. ambassador to Russia.
The trip, which also included stops in Norway and Finland, precedes a meeting between President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin that is set to take place this month in Helsinki, Finland.
It also comes at a time when the Department of Justice is conducting a special investigation into Russia’s role in the 2016 election.
"During our meetings in Moscow, we had frank discussions on a number of issues that have caused a drastic decline in bilateral cooperation," Moran sain in a statement Thursday. "At each and every meeting, I made clear Russian interference in U.S. elections will not be tolerated and a thawing of relations can occur only if this and other behavior by the Russian government changes.”
Vyacheslav Nikonov, one of the Russian legislators who met with the U.S. delegation, described the meeting as “one of the easiest ones in my life” and said the issue of election interference came up only in a general sense.
“One shouldn’t interfere in elections — well, we don’t interfere,” Nikonov said, according to The Washington Post.
Trump has repeatedly sought to undermine the allegations of election interference in recent months and has called the special investigation a “witch hunt.”
Despite Trump’s rhetoric, Moran said he was “pleased this same message” that election interference is unacceptable “has been delivered by the administration.”
Moran said that “it is critical for leaders in Russia to understand the importance of Congress in foreign policy and its authority to protect our national interests alongside the president. We traveled to Moscow to convey that Congress will continue its tough stance toward Russia — including maintaining sanctions — if their behavior remains unchanged.”
However, on Russian state television, the visit by the U.S. lawmakers appears to have been portrayed very differently.
The Washington Post pointed to comments from Igor Korotchenko, a Russian military expert, made on a talk show on state-run TV. “We need to look down at them and say: You came because you needed to, not because we did,” Korotchenko said.
David Satter, a fellow at the Foreign Policy Institute at Johns Hopkins University, said he doubts the lawmakers had any success in communicating their intended message.
“The mere fact of going suggests that you’re not serious about taking action over interference in the election or the… attempted poisoning of people on British soil,” said Satter, a former Moscow correspondent for the Financial Times of London who has published several books on Russia.
“Americans think well we’ll put together a delegation and we’ll go and talk… It kind of diminishes your seriousness,” he said. “The best way to convey a message is not to go to Moscow to hold meetings. The best way is to take tangible actions.”
The lawmakers did not get an opportunity to meet Putin as they had hoped.
Bob Beatty, a political scientist at Washburn University in Topeka, said in an email that visits to “authoritarian or illiberal states are always difficult for U.S. senators because those states control the media and they can easily portray the visits to people in their own country in a favorable light.”
Beatty said that only Moran “can say how forcefully they conveyed their message of displeasure over Russian meddling in U.S. elections, but the visit likely has limited value if their talks are not backed up with at least the realistic threat of further sanctions."
The visit "potentially advantages the Russians if the ‘tough talk’ of the senators is at odds with Donald Trump, whose tone on Russia is often one of the ‘What, me worry?’ variety, enabling the Russians to exploit a clear divide in U.S. foreign policy,” Beatty said.
Kimberly Marten, who directs the program on U.S.-Russia relations at Columbia University's Harriman Institute, said it’s unlikely that anything U.S. officials say “about election interference will have any impact on Putin’s behavior. In September 2016 President Obama told Putin that the U.S. knew he was interfering, and told him to stop it — and a few weeks later the (Hillary Clinton campaign chair John) Podesta emails were released by Russia to Wikileaks.”
The visit faced scrutiny in the United States because of its timing — close to Trump’s upcoming meeting with Putin and during Independence Day.
A July 4 Twitter message from Moran inspired a flood of derisive comments about the fact that he was in Russia.
Kansas Democratic Party executive director Ethan Corson said in an email that Moran "folded like a cheap suit when it came time to confront a foreign power about interfering in our elections."
Moran’s office did not comment specifically on the backlash.
Michael McFaul, who served as U.S. ambassador to Russia from 2012 to 2014, said on MSNBC that it was highly unusual for the visit to be made without any Democrats.
“The bipartisan thing keeps everybody honest,” he told host Rachel Maddow.
Marten, who also chairs Barnard College’s political science department, said the visit “helps President Trump in the upcoming summit by showing that his effort to find common interests with Russia isn’t just him acting as an individual. It also is a first effort toward reestablishing the exchanges between legislators on both sides that were common in the 1990s.”
Marten also contended that isolating “Russia as a punishment for election interference actually hurts the U.S.” when it comes to arms control and other military issues.
She said the U.S. needs “to be talking to Russia more, to understand better how they think, so we can try to avoid crisis escalation at a time of hostility.”