WASHINGTON — When several members of Congress accused Vladimir Putin's Russia of human rights abuses and aggression toward its neighbors, a veteran California congressman stood virtually alone in urging a more cautionary stance.
For 69-year-old Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, a self-described "surfer Republican," this wasn't a totally unexpected position: he's long been virtually the lone pro-Russian voice on Capitol Hill.
"Right from the beginning we've had this incredible hostility," Rohrabacher, who has defended President Vladimir Putin and urged a dialogue with the Kremlin, lamented at a recent congressional hearing. He urged both Russia and the United States at the time to "take a deep breath and a step back."
This past spring, Rohrabacher's position drew support from Donald Trump, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, who advocates giving relations with Moscow another chance. "Common sense says this cycle of hostility must end," Trump said in a speech in April.
A former speechwriter for President Ronald Reagan, the 14-term Rohrabacher takes pride in having worked to weaken "our major global enemy at that time, the Soviet Union." A large photo in his office shows him in the hills of Afghanistan in the 1980s, where, he told The Associated Press in an interview, he launched rockets at Soviet positions as a volunteer fighter.
Rohrabacher's view changed when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, and Russia emerged as a different country. Although he acknowledges that opposition leaders face repression in Russia, he also says the country allows religious freedom and is generally more open than its predecessor.
In the mid-1990s, Rohrabacher got a taste of Russian politics, he says, when he welcomed a delegation of young Russian political leaders, which included Putin, who then worked for the mayor of St. Petersburg. After a friendly football match, the group went to a nearby pub and started arguing over whether the Soviet Union lost the Cold War. The debate turned into an arm-wrestling match between Putin and Rohrabacher, which Putin won.
"I ended up with Putin, and he beat me just like that," Rohrabacher said, snapping his fingers.
Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, R-Calif., is seen in his office on Capitol Hill on June 23, 2016, in Washington.
Photo Credit: Maria Danilova/AP
Now Rohrabacher says he believes policymakers in Washington misunderstand Russia and treat it unfairly. Instead of fighting another Cold War, Russia and the United States should focus on defeating Islamic extremism. "We should not be in a hostile relationship; it's not to the benefit of their people or our people to do this," Rohrabacher told The AP.
John E. Herbst, a former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine disagrees, citing Russia's war with Georgia, its annexation of Crimea and its involvement in the separatist conflict in eastern Ukraine.
"He has been a consistent voice in Congress for weak policies towards an aggressive Kremlin," Herbst said of Rohrabacher. "I have no reason to question his integrity; I have lots of reason to question his judgment."
The lawmaker's critics, however, are unconvinced of his intentions, saying that Rohrabacher isn't just advocating for world peace but is instead pushing an agenda that benefits the Russian government.
A major sore point in U.S.-Russian relations is a 2012 law imposing travel bans and asset freezes on 39 Russian officials deemed implicated in the jailhouse death of Russian whistleblower Sergei Magnitsky. Magnitsky was arrested soon after he accused Russian officials of stealing some $230 million of government money in a tax fraud scheme; the Russian presidential council on human rights concluded he was beaten and denied medical treatment in jail.
Magnitsky worked for British-American financier William Browder, who ran Russia's largest investment fund before being expelled from the country in 2005. Browder, who lobbied for the law that became known as the Magnitsky Act, has traced the missing money to accounts linked to Russian officials in various countries and has sought to freeze the assets. A New York court is currently examining the case of a Russian-owned holding company called Prevezon, whose $14 million worth of assets have been frozen by the U.S. government in connection with the fraud.
The Magnitsky Act infuriated officials in Moscow, many of whom like to travel, buy property and educate their children in the West. Russia retaliated by banning American families from adopting Russian orphans.
This spring, Rohrabacher met with Russian officials while on a trip to Moscow and then sat down with a Prevezon representative in Washington.
In May, Rohrabacher tried unsuccessfully to persuade the House Foreign Affairs Committee to drop Magnitsky from the name of a bill extending sanctions to human rights abusers from other nations. During the vote, he suggested that Browder might have been involved in the tax fraud himself. "I would like to say that it's possible ... but we don't know enough," he said.
Browder accused Rohrabacher of spreading disinformation. Magnitsky's abuse in jail is well-documented; the Justice Department named Browder's company "a victim, not a perpetrator" of the fraud, according to court filings.
"He is knowingly putting out a narrative on the Magnitsky case which is contradicted by evidence from Russia and a large amount of analysis by independent bodies, including the U.S. government," Browder told the AP of Rohrabacher.