After the battle of the blacklists, can the US-Russia relationship get back on track?
The leaders of both countries on Monday signaled a desire to move beyond a recent deterioration in what were already brittle relations. Last Friday, the United States released a list of 18 Russians subject to sanctions for alleged involvement in human rights abuses – prompting Russia to retaliate over the weekend with its own list of 18 Americans targeted for similar sanctions.
The tit for tat of blacklists, which some US-Russia analysts describe as more worthy of the cold-war era, is the outcome of laws passed in 2012. After the US Congress approved a law targeting Russian human rights abusers, Russia retaliated with its own law banning adoptions of Russian children by Americans and providing for the targeting of US rights abusers.
The US law was named the Magnitsky Act after Sergei Magnitsky, a Russian tax collector who reported hundreds of millions of dollars in stolen tax receipts, only to be thrown in prison, where he died in 2009. The Russian legislation approved in December was named for Dima Yakovlev, a Russian boy who died in 2008 after his adoption by a Virginia family.
Now President Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin are hinting at their hopes for getting past the Magnitsky and Yakovlev affairs to issues of mutual interest to the two powers, like missile defense and nuclear disarmament and nonproliferation.
Mr. Obama’s national security adviser, Tom Donilon, was in Moscow Monday, where he met with Russian national security officials and presented Mr. Putin with a letter from Obama. The two countries agreed in March to resume discussions on missile defense, which had broken down over Russian concerns that NATO missile defenses would be aimed at Russia’s nuclear arsenal.
Putin’s foreign policy aide, Yuri Ushakov, hailed the “very constructive tone” of the letter, which he said was being taken as a sign that Obama wants to move beyond the recent rift in relations.
But Mr. Ushakov added that from the Russian perspective, Obama is not doing enough to “fight for bilateral cooperation within the US and does not want to rein in some Russophobes who are putting spokes in the wheel of our cooperation.”
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov echoed that sentiment after his meeting with Mr. Donilon, saying that the Obama administration sounded as if it wanted to repair strained relations, but that actions speak louder than words.
In fact, some Russian lawmakers had breathed a sigh of relief Friday when the Treasury Department released the list of 18 Russians to be slapped with visa bans and a freeze on any US assets, saying the list of mostly minor police and prison officials suggested that the Obama administration hoped to avoid rising tensions with Russia.
“The US ... administration has decided against the path of escalating a political crisis with Moscow,” said Alexei Pushkov, chairman of the Russian Duma’s foreign affairs committee, in an interview with the Interfax news agency. He went on to describe the Obama administration as “disposed to be more reasonable than Congress.”
After the Treasury released the list, several members of Congress blasted it as too short and pledged to press for a more “robust” implementation of the Magnitsky Act. US Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona said that “many additional Russian officials” could have been named under the law’s criteria.
Speaking on a Sunday evening Russian television talk show, presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov dismissed the notion that Obama had softened Magnitsky’s blow by issuing a modest list of names, saying, “One cannot interfere into another nation’s affairs only halfway, just as one cannot be a little bit pregnant.”
He called the US list ill-timed, saying strengthened cooperation between the US and Russia is needed to address a growing number of destabilizing regional conflicts.
In response, some members of Congress and American Russia analysts counter that a US-Russia failure to see eye to eye predates Friday’s Magnitsky blacklist – and they single out in particular the war in Syria and Russia’s continuing support for President Bashar al-Assad.
Others say that, in any case, human rights should not be subordinated to other issues – and that legislation like the Magnitsky Act intends to assist Russians promoting rights and the rule of law.
“At a time when citizens and civil society groups are being denied justice across Russia,” Senator McCain says, “the US has a responsibility to show our Russian friends and partners that there can still be accountability and consequences when basic human rights are violated.”