Say what you will about Russian President Vladimir Putin — and there is a lot that could be said — but he and his government not only play chess, they’ve figured out how to manipulate our pieces around the board.
The Kremlin’s latest pawn appears to be Mike Lee.
The Utah Republican senator was given a green light to take a diplomatic trip to Russia this week.
The move was noteworthy because Russia at the same time denied visas to two other senators — Wisconsin Republican Ron Johnson and Connecticut Democrat Chris Murphy, both members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee (which Lee is not).
It’s a petty tweak to the two senators who — rightly — have criticized Russia in the past, made even more plain by admitting Lee, who was one of just two senators who voted against imposing sanctions on Russia as punishment for meddling in the 2016 election. (Lee’s pal, Sen. Rand Paul, was the other).
In 2017, a month after special counsel Robert Mueller was appointed, Lee was calling for an end to the investigation because he hadn’t seen even a “scintilla” of evidence of corruption or obstruction. “It’s time to wrap this thing up and move on,” Lee said at the time.
And he hasn’t even publicly urged Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to let the Senate vote on a bill designed to help protect the 2020 election from Russian interference.
It’s hard to imagine that Utah’s other senator, Mitt Romney, would get Moscow’s blessing to travel to Russia, given his hard-line past, or that he would go if he was granted a visa.
So maybe we need to start calling Lee #MoscowMike.
I’m not downplaying the importance of diplomacy. We should be willing to talk to our global adversaries, perhaps as much or more than our allies. And we do that. Senators have visited Moscow before and will again.
But there is also something to be said for showing solidarity when a rival power insults your colleagues, the institution of the Senate and the country they represent.
Back in 2015, Russia banned travel by several senators, including then-Sen. John McCain, who provided the appropriate response.
“I couldn’t be more proud of being sanctioned by Vladimir Putin for standing up for freedom and human rights for the Russian people and against Putin’s deadly aggression in Ukraine,” McCain said at the time. “I will never stop my efforts to support democracy, free speech, and the rule of law in Russia.”
What was Lee’s reaction when his fellow senators were denied a visa? We don’t know. He declined to answer the question when my colleague, Thomas Burr, asked.
Murphy, the Connecticut Democrat, thinks Lee should go. That there’s value in him being there. I don’t. Not to mention that Lee’s visit to Russia will be utterly pointless. When Lee sits across the table from Russian officials, he won’t be part of a bipartisan group leading the relevant Senate committees.
He’ll be one guy, representing only himself, espousing his own viewpoints that are already marginalized in the body and could, from this side of the ocean, be questioned inasmuch as they come from the senator that Russia agreed to meet with.
Does Lee honestly believe he can more forcefully drive home the U.S. opposition to Russia’s aggression in Ukraine?
Will Lee broker some breakthrough over Russia’s re-entry into the Group of 7, the economic coalition that had been known as the G8 before Russia was expelled for annexing Crimea?
Is Lee the one who can convince Russia to suspend its tests of ballistic missiles, resumed after the United States pulled out of a test ban that Russia never really honored in the first place?
Or perhaps he thinks he can convince Russia to respect our democracy and not interfere in our electoral process.
Maybe he can convince leaders who have imprisoned people for exercising their faith to suddenly grant religious freedom to its citizens.
Of course none of that will happen. He is simply being used as a wedge between senators and lending some level of legitimacy to Russia’s defiant actions that threaten our national interests.
In that context, Lee would be reasonable to question what benefit could possibly come from his visit and he should politely cancel it.
For the rest of us, it would be reasonable to ask if we are really OK with Utah being represented by one of Russia’s favorite senators.