It will take years of studying policy changes and normalization efforts to ever understand the scope of what happened when a team of U.S. senators and representatives went to Russia over the 2018 Fourth of July holiday. The senators said they went on the trip to tell hard truths to Russian politicians yet Russian media portrays the meetings as amiable and the U.S. politicians as weak once they felt Russian soil.
We will never know exactly what happened when Daines was in Russia the morning of Independence Day then oddly suddenly in D.C. near fireworks later that night, the only politician on the junket who seemed to have left. It is fairly obvious, though, that he turned tail early to have a patriotic photo op. He got the photo but he does not get to play patriot. Because what we do know is that American politicians, Daines among them, eagerly met with Russians who have clear implications in the election interference of 2016 and who western democracies have sanctioned for previous military interference in a fledging democracy.
The senators, to include Daines, said they went to Russia to assess the threat it poses to the U.S. but that appears to only be a talking point for American ears and eyes. Russian state TV noted the senators completely caved once in country and “changed their rhetoric” in Moscow. The new Republican emblem should be a jellyfish because it is as spineless as they are.
So why was the trip important? And why should we fear or chastise politicians for going to a country that plays an (outsized) role in the world? Let us rewind a bit… In 2014, the Obama administration and the European Union implemented effective, targeted economic sanctions against numerous Russian politicians and oligarchs for putting together the invasion of Ukraine. Ukraine is a key country on the continent because it has made strides to join the western Democracies of Europe and NATO and also provides a key transit point for gas into Europe. The Kremlin has long sought to control Ukraine to pressure European actions against it with higher gas prices and Russian forces even closer to NATO borders. Crimea gives Russia a first step into annexing Ukraine. This is not from some deep dark briefing paper in CIA headquarters, it is open knowledge.
During the 2014 invasion, Russian and Ukrainian paramilitary forces using Russian-supplied equipment shot down an airliner carrying nearly 300 civilians. Even though intensive investigations have shown the missile was Russian and the forces who fired it were Russian-trained, Moscow has never owned up to its actions. These Russian paramilitary forces along with Crimean separatists then took control of the restive state over the course of days. Imagine if Canada took western Montana. Russia has now demanded Crimea be recognized as a free state and has made clear it believes Crimea is part of Russia’s historical provinces. Not many have followed through recognizing Crimea, though Trump seemed to indicate he might do that.
Keep in mind, if the U.S. recognizes Crimea as a Russian state then Russian and American political forces can argue it is ridiculous to sanction Russia for taking back a place now in its borders. Without sanctions, these oligarchs and politicians have more money and space to further undermine Western democracies like they have done throughout emerging Soviet satellites like Ukraine and Georgia and more recently in Western Europe, and now America. This is the game. Daines now has a seat at the table.
Not coincidentally, Daines and the other senators met with a few folks on the sanctions list. They openly and happily met with men the U.S has declared as enemies of democracy. Republican U.S. senators ignored this precedent, one, oddly, they have begun by approving these same sanctions. It would have been easy to send a message by simply refusing to meet any of these Russian officials. Instead, they gave them access to American power.
Here are the ones that Daines and other met with who have been covered most openly:
- Konstantin Kosachev, sanctioned and also mentioned in the spectacular “Steele Dossier” as a key Kremlin representative at a meeting in 2016 with Trump campaign officials to undermine the election of Hillary Clinton. Kosachev heads the Russian senate’s powerful foreign affairs committee and has his hands in every Moscow machination abroad.
- In St. Petersburg (Putin’s hometown), reporting indicates the U.S. senate team met with Sergei Kislyak, a member of the Russian legislature and also its former ambassador to the U.S. If his name sounds familiar, that’s because he was the key node between the Kremlin and high-up Trump officials like former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn. Flynn had to resign because of his unreported contacts with Kislyak. Daines just openly meets with him and its no big deal.
- Vyacheslav Volodin is a former deputy to Putin who later moved to the legislature. He is the speaker of the state house (Duma). He came on the original 2014 sanctions list for being part of the discussions leading to the invasion of Crimea. Senator Richard Shelby, who led the American delegation, told him that they were not there to hash out old business or “accuse” Russia of anything.
- Vyacheslav Nikonov, another member of the Duma and former Putin aide, met with the senators and is the grandson of Vyacheslav Molotov, one of the Soviet icons. Nikonov also told state TV that the U.S. had “slept” through Russian interference in elections while its assets helped elect Trump. Daines shook his hand.
- Aleksey Pushkov, his name tag in the second photo of this post, is a sanctioned Russian senator and outspoken member of Putin’s party. He told journalists he preferred Trump to Clinton because he would not take a “hard line” against Russia. He also has called on Russia to stop transiting gas through Ukraine.
And those are just the meetings we know about. There must have been others with oligarchs and former officials who are key to the Kremlin’s interest in destroying Western democracies. Daines just normalized all of that. That he did this on the day of celebrating American independence from royal overlords makes it all the more craven.
This was just the first step in many more that will bring more trips for Republican officials and Russian officials at the center of Making Russia Great Again. Senator Shelby even hinted as much by calling Russia a “superpower.” It is not and the only reason it could even be included in that discussion is because it has used illicit money and subversion to undermine the real superpowers. American senators, Daines among the first, did everything they could to support that effort. Do not ever forget it. I won’t. This trip was yet another dark day among many recent ones in American history.