Utah Sen. Mike Lee: What I told the Russian government

September 15, 2019

When the Berlin Wall fell in November of 1989, the whole world hoped it meant a new era of cooperation and friendship with the Russian people. Almost 30 years later, however, our relationship with Russia is almost as strained as it was during the Cold War.

Russia invaded Georgia in 2008 and Ukraine 2014, and it continues to prolong humanitarian crises in Libya, Syria and Venezuela. Russian agents stole emails from the Democratic National Committee, hacked voting machines in some states and accessed voter data files in others.

If our relationship with Russia is ever going to improve, its aggressive behavior must stop. That is the message I delivered to every Russian official I met with on my trip to Moscow earlier this month.

The message was not always warmly received, of course. But Russian officials did seem to appreciate that a U.S. lawmaker had made the trip to Moscow to deliver it in person. There is appetite on both sides for — and value in — more open and honest dialogue. But the Russians made the prospect for such dialogue more difficult when they denied visas to my colleagues Sens. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., and Ron Johnson, R-Wis. I was of course outraged by this affront on my colleagues. But both encouraged me to still make the trip.

According to the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the visas were denied in response to “unfounded restrictions against a significant number of members of the Federation Council” by the United States. This kind of “tit-for-tat” conduct does not build trust. As Russian officials made clear to me, Russian public opinion supports improved relations with the United States.

If so, Russian President Vladimir Putin is not helping. In addition to the unprecedented election interference in 2016, the Russian government continues to persecute religious minorities, especially Jehovah’s Witnesses, the LGBTQ community and other oppressed populations.

Before I left for Russia, I always knew that the Russian Orthodox Church was the favored state church of Russia. But I had no idea just how intertwined that church was with Putin’s government. If the Russian government ever expects the United States to support better relations with Russia, it must first learn to treat its minority populations better.

Better relations with Russia is something we should want, too. That has always been America’s foreign policy, even at the height of the Cold War. In 1981, President Ronald Reagan lifted Jimmy Carter’s Russian grain embargo just three months after taking office. Why would the tough-talking Cold Warrior soften economic sanctions against our enemy? Because Reagan realized the grain embargo was not putting the desired pressure on the Russian government to leave Afghanistan, but it was hurting American farmers.

By recalculating America’s policy toward Russia and stressing realism, strength and dialogue, President Reagan was able to both further American interests and set the stage for the fall of the Soviet Union.

With that in mind, there are steps America can take to prepare for a better Russia. Today, there are approximately 860 Russian individuals and organizations that have been sanctioned by the United States. Without stopping or pausing these sanctions, we should begin to study them to identify which ones are achieving their desired effect, which ones aren’t working and which ones may be harming U.S. interests.

Once we have this information, we can then better structure our sanctions regime to push Russian behavior in the right direction.

True friendship can only be built through honest communication. We should never shy from speaking the truth to our potential partners. But if we never try to communicate, then our relationships will remain stagnate.

Op-ed originally published by the Deseret News