With a much anticipated first summit between U.S. President Donald Trump and his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, scheduled for July 16 in Helsinki, a U.S. congressional delegation arrived for talks in Moscow, expressing hope for a "new day" in bilateral relations.
"We come here realizing that we have a strained relationship, but we could have a better relationship between the U.S. and Russia,” said Senator Richard Shelby, a Republican from Alabama, speaking in front of cameras ahead of a meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov.
“Because we have some common interests around the world that we could hopefully work together on,” Shelby said, adding, "We could be competitors, we are competitors, but we don't necessarily need to be adversaries.”
“So we’re hoping that coming out of the Putin-Trump meeting in Helsinki will be the beginning, maybe, of a new day.”
The eight-member U.S. delegation was officially in town to speak with their counterparts in Russia's lower and upper houses of parliament - the first direct exchange between lawmakers from both countries since 2013.
Both sides indicated that discussions touched on a range of topics, including Syria, Ukraine, allegations of election meddling, as well as Russia’s economy - the latter topic raised by Shelby despite punishing U.S. sanctions levied against Russia over its actions in Ukraine.
“I’d like to know how your economy’s doing as far as your GDP?“ asked Shelby before bemused members of the Federation Council, Russia's upper house of parliament; however, if the U.S. delegation’s visit was intended to break the ice, it seemed to have the desired effect.
There were hints of a possible reciprocal visit by Russian lawmakers to Washington, with Shelby suggesting the move “would be useful for both sides.” Left unsaid was that the move would also likely require removing top Russian lawmakers from a U.S. travel "blacklist" imposed last year.
Foreign Minister Lavrov later welcomed the warming initiative, congratulating the U.S. delegation on the coming July 4 Independence Day celebrations and expressing “real hope your visit will symbolize the resumption of relations between the two parliaments."
“I think that the resumption of dialogue between parliamentarians is going to be a very timely event on the eve of the forthcoming meeting between the two presidents a couple of weeks from now in Helsinki,” added Lavrov.
Desire to ‘get along’
The summit - finalized amid a visit to Moscow by National Security Adviser John Bolton just last week - will cap a dizzying year in which President Trump repeatedly expressed a desire to “get along” with Russia while approving a raft of sanctions that have sent U.S.-Russia relations to lows reminiscent of the Cold War.
Given the short notice, officials from both sides have been hashing out possible areas of cooperation and summit ‘deliverables’ - with arms control and Syria rumored to lead the list.
Yet the coming summit has fueled concerns among Trump critics in Washington, who raise concerns over an ongoing investigation into his campaign’s ties to Russian surrogates amid the 2016 presidential election.
Comments from Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov on Tuesday that the two leaders were likely to meet alone without their aides before the start of the official summit are all but certain to feed the anxieties of Trump's critics.
Yet Trump’s push for a quick summit with Putin has equally alarmed traditional U.S. allies, with whom Trump has clashed over issues such as funding for NATO, and the Iran nuclear deal, among other issues. Trump pulled the U.S. out of the deal earlier this year.
Most recently, the U.S. leader angered European leaders when he reportedly suggested last month that he may be willing to reverse U.S. policy and recognize Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea from neighboring Ukraine.
When asked about the Crimea issue, Senator Shelby demurred. “We discussed all the issues including that one, but the resolution is not on our level.”