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Senators scrap Russia trip after Kremlin snubs Shaheen

The Democratic senator backed sanctions against Russia and called for a crackdown against Kaspersky Lab.

Two Republican senators have called off a planned trip to Russia after the Kremlin denied a visa to a Democratic colleague, New Hampshire Sen. Jeanne Shaheen.

Shaheen, an outspoken backer of a Russia sanctions bill that Congress approved overwhelmingly earlier this year, had been scheduled to visit Russia along with GOP colleagues Ron Johnson of Wisconsin and John Barrasso of Wyoming. But a Shaheen spokesman said the senator believes the Kremlin has placed her under a travel sanction, prohibiting her visit.

"While she regrets the Kremlin decision to impede dialogue between the Senate and the Russian people, she vows to continue her work to hold the Russian government accountable for its actions that go against international norms and against the Russian people," said Shaheen spokesman Ryan Nickel.

A spokesman for Russia's U.S. embassy said in a statement that Shaheen's visa was the only one denied because she is on a Russian "black list" created in response to U.S. sanctions issued against the country.

The "attempt to present this situation as if the visit was cancelled because of the Russian side is totally biased and untrue," said the spokesman, Nikolay Lakhonin. "In fact, we proposed different ways out of the situation, including reaching an agreement to issue visas to [lawmakers] in the 'black lists' on reciprocal basis. Unfortunately, this proposal was rejected by the American side."

Lakhonin said the broader issue is Washington's embrace of sanctions, which he described as "a detrimental method of conducting foreign policy."

"We are still in favour of resuming inter-parliamentary ties and hope that contacts between the lawmakers of our countries, which were unanimously halted by US Congress, will resume," he said, demanding that Russian lawmakers also be removed from U.S. sanction lists.

Similarly, Shaheen has been a consistent supporter of measures meant to counter Russian cyber-aggression. In response to Russian interference in the 2016 election, she advocated a ban on the use of Kaspersky Lab software across the federal government, accusing the Russia-based firm of working closely with the Kremlin.

And Shaheen pushed aggressively this year to force RT — the Russian news outlet that intelligence officials believe aided the Kremlin's election influence campaign — to register as a foreign agent.

Johnson and Barrasso canceled the trip in solidarity with Shaheen.

"The decision to deny a visa to a member of our Senate delegation is extremely unfortunate and counterproductive to improving relations between our nations," Johnson, chairman of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, said in a statement.

The three senators were scheduled to depart for Russia on Jan. 11 until they were notified Shaheen wouldn't be permitted to attend. The trip was not sponsored by any organization, a Shaheen aide said.

A Shaheen aide said the canceled trip had also included legs in Germany and Ukraine. In Russia, the lawmakers had intended to meet with civil society groups, as well as unspecified government officials. They also planned to meet with the "next generation of Russian leaders and current officials to understand prospects of the future of [the] US-Russian relationship."

Shaheen, Johnson and Barrasso all serve on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, giving them a prime perch to influence the sanctions bill that President Donald Trump reluctantly signed earlier this year. Shaheen also took a public stand against Russian security software firm Kaspersky Lab and its CEO, Eugene Kaspersky. The company has been fingered by U.S. intelligence officials as a potential security risk to agencies and businesses that rely on its products.

"Beyond the evidence of direct links between Mr. Kaspersky and the Russian government, we cannot ignore the indirect links inherent in doing business in the Russia of President Vladimir Putin, where oligarchs and tycoons have no choice but to cooperate with the Kremlin," Shaheen wrote in a New York Times op-ed in September.

The Kremlin has previously levied sanctions against U.S. lawmakers deemed hostile to Russian interests. In 2014, the country barred travel by six U.S. lawmakers — including then-Speaker John Boehner and then-Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid — in retaliation for a round of U.S. sanctions punishing Russia for its decision to annex Ukraine's Crimea Peninsula.

Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) are the only two lawmakers targeted in that round of Russian sanctions still in office. Former Sen. Dan Coats, another Russia target, is now Trump's director of national intelligence.

An aide to Shaheen said she's grateful to her Republican colleagues for calling off the Russia trip rather than attending without her.

"Johnson stuck to his guns on this," a Shaheen spokesman said. "He put his foot down and maintained that if Sen. Shaheen can't go, then it's not happening."