US senators broach Russia tensions on pre-summit Moscow visit

by Ola CICHOWLAS
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, seen shaking hands with US Senator Richard Shelby, said the visit by Republican senators was timely

Republican US senators met with Russian officials on a rare visit to Moscow Tuesday, broaching touchy issues such Ukraine, Syria and election meddling in preparation for a summit between the countries' presidents.

Ahead of the summit planned in Helsinki on July 16, the visit comes at a time of high tension between Russia and the West over various conflicts and political disputes.

The US delegation met with Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and lawmakers from the lower house Duma and Senate.

"We know that we have some differences -- some fundamental, some less so. We discussed some of this with Lavrov and the speaker of the Duma," Richard Shelby, a Republican senator from Alabama, told reporters.

"We recognise that the world is better off, I believe, if Russia and the US have fewer tensions," he had said in earlier televised comments after meeting Lavrov at the foreign ministry.

"We're hoping that coming out of the Putin-Trump meeting in Helsinki, it will be the beginning, maybe, of a new day."

Lavrov said he hoped the senators' visit "will symbolise the resumption of relations between the (US and Russian) parliaments."

"I think the resumption of dialogue is going to be a very timely event on the eve of the forthcoming meeting between the two presidents," he said in English.

Lavrov also congratulated the delegation on the forthcoming US Independence Day and wished them well on hosting the 2026 FIFA World Cup. Russia is currently hosting this year's tournament.

- Sanctions off the menu? -

Among the points of dispute is Washington's economic sanctions against Russia for its annexation of Crimea from Ukraine.

Moscow and Washington announced the summit date after Trump's National Security Advisor John Bolton met with Putin in Moscow last week.

But officials said the sides did not discuss the lifting of US sanctions as a possible subject for the summit.

One of the visiting senators, John Kennedy of Louisiana, struck a cautious note as he spelt out some of the disagreements between the two superpowers.

"I ask Russia not to interfere in our (mid-term) elections this year. I ask them to exit Ukraine," Kennedy told reporters.

"I ask for their help in bringing peace to Syria and I ask them not to allow Iran to gain a foothold in Syria," he added.

"This is the beginning of a dialogue but you have to watch what people do, not what they say."

- 'We argued' -

Russian Senator Konstantin Kosachev, who chairs a committee for international affairs, cited the sanctions as one of the key points of discord.

"We did not agree on everything, we argued. We obviously don't find mutual understanding in many issues," he said following the talks.

Trump has been reaching out to Putin even as the US leader's ties with some of his western allies have become strained.

The head-to-head between the US and Russian leaders will follow a delicate NATO summit in Brussels.

Trump has expressed scorn for the alliance and is expected to upbraid European NATO members for not spending enough on their own defence.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said there was no plan for the senators to meet Putin. Their visit runs until Thursday.

Peskov said the Kremlin was "very satisfied" that the senators were visiting Russia.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, seen shaking hands with US Senator Richard Shelby, said the visit by Republican senators was timely