WASHINGTON – The Russian government denied visas to two U.S. senators who planned to visit the country – an unusual rebuke that has forced the lawmakers to nix their trip to Moscow.
"The Russian government is further isolating their country by blocking our visit," Murphy said in a statement Tuesday. "This is potentially a perilous moment for our two nations’ fragile relationship, and it’s a shame that Russia isn’t interested in dialogue."
Johnson called the move a "petty affront" and said he had hoped "direct dialogue with Russian parliamentarians" could help improve U.S.-Russia relations. Instead, he said, Putin's government "decided to to play diplomatic games with this sincere effort and have denied me entrance to Russia."
A third senator scheduled to go on the official congressional trip, Sen. Mike Lee of Utah, was granted a visa and still plans to go, his spokesman, Conn Carroll, said in an email.
The Russian embassy in Washington posted a statement blasting Johnson as "russophobic" and saying he never applied for a visa through its facility.
"Senator Ron Johnson's groundless accusations against Russia leave no doubts – he is ready not for a dialogue but for a confrontation," the statement said.
The same comments applied to questions about Murphy's visa denial, the embassy said. In a tweet, the embassy implied it was retaliation for U.S. sanctions on Russian legislators.
Michael McFaul, who served as ambassador to Russia in the Obama administration, said it was rare for U.S. lawmakers to be denied visas.
"It’s just extremely unusual, and I would say regrettable," McFaul said.
He pointed to one other similar incident: In 2017, Russia barred Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, a New Hampshire Democrat, from visiting the country. The Kremlin blocked her visit after Congress passed a tough Russia sanctions bill that Shaheen had vocally backed.
In 2015, Russia sanctioned then-Sen. John McCain, a fierce Putin critic, and several other top American officials, apparently in retaliation for sanctions the Obama administration had imposed on Russian officials. McCain joked that the move ruined his plans for a holiday in Siberia and said he was proud of standing up "against Putin’s deadly aggression in Ukraine."
McFaul said it's not clear what Murphy and Johnson did to provoke Russia's ire, but it suggests President Donald Trump's efforts to repair relations with Russia are misplaced.
"I think it underscores something that is often missing in the debate about Trump and all his happy talk about Putin," McFaul said. "Why does he assume that Putin wants a good relationship with the United States?"
Putin has not done anything to improve relations, and this incident is a "clear example that hes' not interested" in a thaw, McFaul said.
Johnson, Murphy and Lee all sit on the Foreign Relations Committee, and Johnson chairs the subcommittee on Europe & Regional Security Cooperation. All three voted in favor of the Russia sanctions bill.
The lawmakers had intended to meet with Russian government officials and civil society activists, although their itinerary had not been finalized. Jamie Geller, a spokeswoman for Murphy, said her boss would now travel to Berlin and then join Johnson in visiting Serbia, Kosovo and Ukraine.
Lee's spokesman said his only confirmed meeting so far is with America's ambassador to Russia, Jon Huntsman Jr.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Russia denies visas for Ron Johnson and Chris Murphy to visit Moscow