AILSA CHANG, HOST:
What a difference a couple of months can make. In April, the Trump administration imposed sanctions on people close to Russian President Vladimir Putin to penalize them for Russia's interference in the U.S. elections. Now President Trump is getting ready for a summit with Putin later this month. And this week, eight members of Congress are in Moscow. NPR's Lucian Kim caught up with them at the U.S. Embassy's Fourth of July party.
LUCIAN KIM, BYLINE: Spaso House is a U.S. ambassador's residence in Moscow, an island of Americana just a mile from the Kremlin. At the annual Independence Day celebration, the Marine guard presented colors.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Present colors.
KIM: And embassy staff sang along to the national anthem.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Singing) Can you see by the dawn's early light...
KIM: Standing in the front row was Senator Richard Shelby of Alabama, the head of the first congressional delegation to Russia since the annexation of Crimea four years ago.
RICHARD SHELBY: We didn't come here to say, what you've been doing is great, and we're going to look the other way. We came here to talk candidly and honestly. The Russians can earn a better relationship with the U.S. if they want to.
KIM: The trip by the seven senators and one House member - all Republicans - was planned before the announcement of the summit between Presidents Trump and Putin in the Finnish capital, Helsinki, later this month. But the visit itself is one of the first signs of a thaw after tightening economic sanctions on Russia, tit-for-tat diplomatic expulsions and a freeze in day-to-day contacts between the two governments. Russia's military intervention in Ukraine put relations on a downward curve, and U.S. accusation that the Kremlin tried to influence the 2016 election sent them into a tailspin, despite Trump's sympathy for Putin. The senators say they brought up election interference in every meeting they've held with Russian officials.
JOHN KENNEDY: We made the point that if Russia persists in trying to influence our elections, it's going to be very difficult, if not impossible, for us to establish a better relationship.
KIM: That's Senator John Kennedy of Louisiana. He says other issues that came up were Russia's military involvement in Ukraine and in Syria, as well as arms control. His colleague from Kansas, Senator Jerry Moran, says it's better for the whole world to have two nuclear powers at least speaking to each other.
JERRY MORAN: Having a conversation does not diminish the toughness of the differences and our stance in regard to Russia and their behavior. But how can you communicate and deliver that toughness if you don't demonstrate a willingness to have a conversation about those things?
KIM: Considering how acrimonious the political conversation is back home, I asked Senator Shelby why he didn't include any Democrats on this trip. He answered that not all delegations are bipartisan. What's happening now is a first step in the right direction with Russia.
SHELBY: Can we bring about a new day, a new tone? Could we find areas of cooperation? It will be set, I believe, by our two presidents.
KIM: Shelby said he met Trump last week and will report back to him when he returns to Washington. Lucian Kim, NPR News, Moscow. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.