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What could Sen. Mike Lee’s trip to Russia mean for relations with the U.S.?

Sen. Mike Lee
Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, asks questions during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing Washington, Wednesday on Oct. 18, 2017. He is planning to go to Russia on Thursday to discuss trade, military relations, religious liberty and other issues.
Carolyn Kaster, AP

SALT LAKE CITY — While the Kremlin recently denied travel visas for two U.S. senators, Utah Sen. Mike Lee did receive a visa to travel to Russia on Thursday.

And according to one Russia official, Lee’s “mood” could determine future discussions between members of Congress and Russian legislators.

Lee, R-Utah, will be the only elected official on the four-day trip, said Conn Carroll, the senator’s spokesman. It is his first trip to Russia.

“During his trip, Sen. Lee will meet with U.S. and Russian government officials and business leaders to discuss trade and military relations, religious liberty and other issues important to both countries,” Carroll said.

“It is important for the United States to maintain a strong and open dialogue with the Russian Federation in order to make progress on matters that are central to American peace and prosperity.”

The U.S. Embassy in Russia — which is headed by former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. — invited Lee to Moscow, Carroll said. The Treasury Department pays for the trip. Huntsman announced recently that he will be stepping down in October.

TASS, Russia’s state-run news agency, reported Thursday that Russian Federation Council Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Konstantin Kosachev will sit down with Lee on Friday.

The meeting will be held at the senator’s initiative, Kosachev told TASS.

“The senator’s trip to Moscow is the American’s initiative. Certainly, he accepted the proposal for a meeting at the Federation Council,” he said.

Russian legislators believe that contacts with their counterparts from the U.S. are in high demand and the meeting with Lee will show whether he is ready for resuming a dialogue, Kosachev told TASS.

“Russia has never refrained from such contacts, moreover we believe they are in high demand in the general context of bilateral ties at this stage. We need to understand with what mood Mr. Lee is coming to Moscow and whether he is ready to make efforts for resuming a full-fledged dialogue between the parliaments. This meeting will demonstrate this,” Kosachev said.

Kosachev was among three dozen Russian government officials, oligarchs and companies the Trump administration hit with sanctions in 2018, citing “the Kremlin’s malign agenda” that includes malicious online campaigns and efforts to undermine democracy and actions in eastern Ukraine and Syria.

Lee was one of two senators who voted against sanctions imposed on Russia for meddling in the 2016 election. While Russia has proven problematic for the U.S. in a variety of ways, he could not support the bill because it allocated $250 million to international organizations that have funded politically divisive projects, he said at the time.

The Russian government refused last week to grant visas to Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., and Ron Johnson, R-Wis., both members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Lee is not a member of that committee. Carroll said Lee’s trip is separate from the one his colleagues planned.

Murphy told MSNBC he has no issue with Lee going to Russia.

“I support him,” he said.

Murphy, who has described himself as a “tough critic” of Russia, said last week that it’s unfortunate that the Russian government is further isolating itself by blocking his and Johnson’s visit planned for this week.

“With the collapse of recent arms control agreements and significant domestic opposition to Vladimir Putin’s authoritarian rule, this is potentially a perilous moment for our two nations’ fragile relationship, and it’s a shame that Russia isn’t interested in dialogue,” he said.