SALT LAKE CITY — Utah Sen. Mike Lee had what he described as an animated, spirited and contentious discussion with a government leader in Russia last weekend covering a range of thorny issues, including election meddling, sanctions and the U.S. withdrawal from a Cold War-era arms treaty.
Lee, a Republican, met with Russian Federation Council Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Konstantin Kosachev during his two-day trip to Moscow.
“He didn’t waste much in getting to some of the grievances that he’s got. He complained almost right off the bat about Russian sanctions,” Lee said.
Kosachev was among three dozen Russian government officials, oligarchs and companies the Trump administration hit with sanctions last year, citing “the Kremlin’s malign agenda” that includes 2016 election meddling, military intervention in Ukraine and ongoing support of the Assad regime in Syria.
Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr., the U.S. ambassador to Russia, played host to Lee, introducing him to nongovernmental organizations, human rights groups, American businesses, including some with ties to Utah, and government officials. Lee also talked about free trade with Russia’s Audit Chamber Alexei Kudrin, the equivalent to the U.S. treasury secretary.
Lee’s visit came the same week that Russian authorities were cracking down on anti-government protesters. It was Lee’s first trip to Russia.
National Public Radio caught up with Lee and Huntsman at a fair in Moscow’s Gorky Park.
Huntsman, who will step down in October, said it’s important for the Russians to hear from members of Congress.
“There’s always going to be propaganda and disinformation associated with this relationship to some degree,” he told NPR. “But what we’re looking for is real dialogue — people looking at each other across the table, exchanging in frank and honest discussions.”
Lee said he and Kosachev acknowledged that the U.S.-Russian relationship is at a low point and talks between legislative leaders are difficult because some are precluded from traveling to each other’s country. Russia denied visas to Sens. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., and Ron Johnson, R-Wis., who were scheduled to be on the trip.
Despite the chilly relations, Lee said he and Kosachev agreed they can still have an open conversation.
“I pointed out to him, I am here,” Lee said. “That is a start.”
Despite the sometimes contentious tone, Lee said the meeting with Kosachev was respectful and “very productive.” He said he and Kosachev learned a lot from each other.
Kosachev told Tass, Russia’s state-run news agency, that talks were better than he expected.
“They were really frank and were held in an amiable manner. There were no attempts to preach morality and mentor, which we can sometimes see in our American counterparts. He was attentively listening to what we were saying. For our part, we were listening attentively to what he was saying,” he said.
Kosachev said he and Lee plan to keep in touch.
“We had a rather hard conversation, but it was very open, frank and that is why extremely useful,” he told Tass.
Kosachev emphasized during the lengthy meeting that while U.S. sanctions might hurt the Russian economy, they’re not going to change Russia’s political calculus, Lee said. Kosachev could have meant Russia would continue to interfere in U.S. elections, but didn’t put that fine of point on the statement, he said.
Lee said he pointed out that election meddling doesn’t help the relationship, especially on the scale Russia attempted in 2016. Kosachev, he said, became defensive and said, “Oh, well, meddling happens. He tried to say you guys do it, too.”
“I pushed back hard on that,” the senator said.
Kosachev complained about the U.S. pulling out of the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces agreement, which restricted missile launches from both countries. Lee said Kosachev gave him a brief lecture on the “injustice” of American exceptionalism, the idea that America’s values, political system and history are unique and worthy of admiration. He also took issue with what he characterized as U.S. double standards in international affairs that stem from that notion, Lee said.
“I told him talking about American exceptionalism as a bad thing is probably not going to be helpful,” the senator said.
The U.S. withdrawing from the INF treaty was predictable given the many years of the Russian government not honoring its obligation, Lee said.
The senator said he reiterated that improved relations between the two countries depend on Russia changing its behavior.
“We’re in a place that isn’t very good, but the good news is there’s a lot they could do to change that, Lee said.
Lee said he explained to Kosachev that election meddling, aggression toward Ukraine, not complying with the INF treaty and treatment of religious minorities and the LGBT community combine to strain the relationship.
“I said what you’re left with in the United States is a situation in which you don’t have a natural base of allies in either house of Congress or either political party,” Lee said. Russian meddling alone, he said, has created enmity and contempt for Russia among Republicans and Democrats, “who for differing but related reasons don’t want anything to do with Russia.”
As a result, U.S. lawmakers are inclined for all sorts of reasons to vote for almost any legislation that escalates sanctions against Russia.
On Russia’s human rights record, Lee said Kosachev told him a lot of countries are worse, such as Saudi Arabia. Lee said he pointed out to him that isn’t an argument he finds persuasive.
“You’ve got the wrong guy. I complain about a lot of things related to Saudi Arabia,” Lee said.
Lee said he didn’t demand nor did he expect Kosachev to concede any points of contention because he was not in a position to unilaterally offer anything.
During the trip, Lee also did an interview with Tass in which he talked about his meeting on trade with Kudrin, the head of Russia’s auditing agency.
When people’s access to each other is restricted through government policies, it threatens not just economic growth but the same phenomena that allows people to get out of poverty, Lee said.
”We live in a day and age when through the miracle of e-commerce and miracles of modern transportation more people of the world have more access to other people than anyone has ever had in the past,” he told Tass. “This has been a very good thing, especially for the poor and the middle class in the U.S. and in Russia and in countless other countries throughout the world.”
Lee said free trade and unhindered commerce have done more to lift people out of poverty than any government program ever could and ever can and ever will.