WASHINGTON -- A U.S. senator who traveled to Russia with a Republican congressional delegation last week said President Vladimir Putin could not be trusted and likened dealing with Moscow to "dealing with the mafia."
Senator John Kennedy (Republican-Louisiana) also told reporters on July 9 that he warned the Russian government to "stop screwing with American elections."
Kennedy said the senators warned the Russians that if they interfere in U.S. midterm elections in November, lawmakers "will hit you with sanctions even harder than what we have right now."
He said he told the Russians to "get out of eastern Ukraine and let them self-determine" and "to get out of Crimea and let Crimea self-determine."
Kennedy added he also warned Moscow to "stop screwing around in Syria and help us settle the mess [and] do not allow Iran to get a foothold in southern Syria."
"Because if you do that, there’s going to be another war," he added, speaking on Capitol Hill.
Kennedy and six other Republican senators and one House member traveled to Russia from June 30 to July 4, in a trip seen as a prelude to a summit between Putin and U.S. President Donald Trump, who are scheduled to meet in Helsinki on July 16.
Senators Kennedy and Richard Shelby of Alabama told CNN on June 22 that the trip was being arranged by the U.S. ambassador to Moscow, Jon Huntsman. Kennedy said he hoped to meet with Putin, but that did not occur.
Conflicting reports have surfaced about the trip, which was criticized by Democrats for only involving Republicans and for allegedly not challenging Russia on its interference in U.S. elections and its actions in Ukraine, Syria, and elsewhere.
Senator Richard Shelby, who headed the delegation, said he told Duma Speaker Vyacheslav Volodin that "I'm not here today to accuse Russia of this or that or so forth. I'm saying that we should all strive for a better relationship."
"We have a strained relationship, but we could have a better relationship between the U.S. and Russia because there's some common interests around the world that we could hopefully work together on," Shelby told Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.
Russian lawmaker Vyacheslav Nikonov described the meetings as "one of the easiest ones in my life" and claimed the subject of election meddling was only brought up "in general form" and was quickly resolved.
However, Kennedy told reporters that the meetings were "cantankerous" at times and he described Lavrov as a "bully."
"There is no political philosophy in Russia. It's sort of like saying, what's the political philosophy of the mafia," Kennedy said.
"Their philosophy is money and power. That's the philosophy of Putin. He rules with an iron hand. He's a dictator," Kennedy said.
He said there is "no free press" in Russia and that there is a wide divide in wealth between the rich and ordinary citizens.
The Russian people "deserve better," he said.
Still, Kennedy said he did not have a problem with Trump meeting with Putin in the upcoming summit, although he added that he did not expect any major breakthroughs.
"You can't trust Putin," Kennedy said. "I think the best we can do is try to contain him."