Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov says a visit by Republican members of the U.S. Congress should improve ties between the two countries' legislatures.
The U.S. lawmakers are in Russia this week on what they say is a mission to try to help revive relations, which are severely strained, and observe how Russia's economy is doing after four years of Western sanctions.
At a meeting on July 3, Lavrov said he hoped the visit will "symbolize the renewal of relations between the parliaments" of the United States and Russia, something he said was "very timely" ahead of the summit in Helsinki -- the first full-fledged meeting between Presidents Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin.
"We come here realizing that we have a strained relationship, but we could have a better relationship between the U.S. and Russia, because we have some common interests around the world that we could hopefully work together on," Senator Richard Shelby (Republican-Alabama) told Lavrov at the start of their meeting. "We could be competitors -- we are competitors -- but we don't necessarily need to be adversaries."
The U.S. lawmakers were also meeting with State Duma speaker Vyacheslav Volodin, a close ally of Putin, and Konstantin Kosachyov, the chairman of the Federation Council's International Relations Committee.
The Duma is the lower house of Russia's parliament, and the Federation Council is the upper chamber. Both are dominated by parties loyal to the Kremlin, and virtually all legislation passed by the parliament has the blessing of the Kremlin.
Before arriving in Moscow late on July 2, the U.S. legislators met in St. Petersburg with the city's governor, Georgy Poltavchenko, and expressed hopes for improving relations. Poltavchenko told them he was "ready for cooperation on all fronts."
The legislators were invited to Russia by U.S. Ambassador Jon Huntsman and are considered to be sympathetic to or allied with U.S. President Donald Trump, who plans to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin on July 16 in an effort to revive Russia-U.S. ties after years of deterioration.
"We will have to wait and see, and go from there, but we recognize that the world is better off, I believe, if Russia and the U.S. have fewer tensions," Shelby said.
Senator John Kennedy (Republican-Louisiana) told CNN he hoped the group would be able to meet with Putin, though Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov there were no plans for Putin meet with the legislators.
"I want to be able to meet with government officials, try to establish some rapport, talk about common interest, talk about common problems," Kennedy said, emphasizing that his goal was to "establish rapport between the United States Congress and the Putin administration."
All members of the delegation voted to pass the legislation last year that tightened and expanded sanctions on Russia, originally imposed over Russia's aggression in Ukraine. The legislation, which Trump opposed, also makes it extremely difficult for Trump to lift the sanctions without congressional approval.
Kennedy said he wanted to see how Russia's economy is doing.
"Some say it's in shambles," he told CNN. "Others say with the increase in the price of oil, it's doing much better. Others say [Russia is] spending all their money on Syria and weaponry and the people are starving to death. Others say that's not true. So I don't know."
Asked if he would bring up the topic of alleged Russian meddling in U.S. elections, Kennedy said, "Now, I don't want to do anything to start an international incident, but I believe in talking frankly about these things."
Kennedy told CNN that there had been a lot of "serious allegations that Russia has interfered with not just our elections," but with elections in France and Germany as well as with Britain's vote in 2016 to exit the European Union.
The congressional delegation arrived in Russia on June 30 and plans to stay until July 5. Also included in the group are Senators John Hoeven (Republican-North Dakota), John Thune (Republican-South Dakota), Jerry Moran (Republican-Kansas), Steve Daines (Republican-Montana), and one House of Representatives member, Kay Granger (Republican-Texas).