Amid a war of words and the publication of dueling official blacklists of "criminals" who enjoy impunity on the other side, Moscow and Washington may be finally taking steps to repair their tattered relationship.
On Monday Vladimir Putin agreed – "at the last moment," the Kremlin press service said – to meet with Barack Obama's visiting personal envoy, National Security Advisor Tom Donilon, and to accept a letter from Mr. Obama containing proposals on the way forward in nuclear arms reduction, negotiations on the thorny issue of missile defense, and improving bilateral trade.
After examining the contents of Obama's letter, Mr. Putin's foreign policy adviser Yury Ushakov pronounced it "constructive."
"The message is written in a very constructive tone and contains a range of suggestions for further deepening of our bilateral dialogue and cooperation," Mr. Ushakov told journalists.
"Some ideas have already been talked about but there are some new elements which our country will study in the most attentive way and give a corresponding response," he said.
That's what passes for a positive signal these days, as the public hailstorm of angry rhetoric between Moscow and Washington over human rights issues intensifies.
In recent days both the US and Russia have published their own separate "lists" of rights violators from the other country who will be unilaterally subjected to a visa ban and asset freezes because of the alleged unwillingness or incapacity of the other nation's own legal system to administer justice.
Analysts say that the competing lists illustrate the depths to which the Moscow-Washington relationship has fallen since the hopeful "reset" of ties that led to breakthroughs in arms control and cooperation around Afghanistan during Obama's first term.
Regardless of whether the people now publicly identified as criminals by the US and Russian governments are actually guilty, the meting out of punishment by a foreign government is bound to be seen as a usurpation of sovereignty and a diplomatic insult on both sides, experts say.
"This is an absurd process. These lists have nothing to do with justice or common sense. They are strictly about criticizing each other," says Dmitry Suslov, an expert with the Council on Foreign and Defense Policies, a leading Moscow think tank.
"The US started it, with the Magnitsky List, which is not about punishing the people listed – whose guilt is yet to be proven – but all about stating the opinion of legislators concerning the state of Russia under Vladimir Putin. It has everything to do with politics, and nothing to do with justice," he adds.
The diplomatic chill has been underway for over a year, but it went into overdrive in December after Obama signed the Magnitsky Act into law, named after an anti-corruption whistle blower, Sergei Magnitsky, who died under suspicious circumstances in a Russian prison more than three years ago. Amid the storm of outrage that followed in Russia, Putin signed the Dima Yakovlev Act which, among other things, overturned a bilateral treaty regulating international adoptions and banned US citizens from adopting Russian orphans in future.
Last week the US made public the names of 18 Russians on the Magnitsky List, most of whom are law enforcement and tax officials connected with the corruption case that Mr. Magnitsky uncovered and with his subsequent arrest and death in detention.
They include Yelena Stashina, a judge who denied Magnitsky's claim that he had been deprived of medical care in prison; Olga Stepanova, a tax officer who authorized a $230 million tax rebate – fingered as fraudulent by Magnitsky – who was subsequently cleared by Russian authorities; and Artyom Kuznetsov, a Moscow interior ministry investigator who Magnitsky accused of masterminding the massive tax scam. Also on the US list is Kazbek Dukuzov, a Chechen who was acquitted by a Russian jury in 2006 of murdering US investigative journalist and Forbes editor Paul Klebnikov, and who disappeared before a scheduled retrial could take place.
None on the open list are top-level Russian officials, but experts say a still-classified annex to the US list almost certainly contains some politically explosive names, including the pro-Moscow leader of Chechnya, Ramzan Kadyrov.
Mr. Kadyrov openly mocked the US law over the weekend, telling Russian journalists that "I am proud that I am Russian, proud that I am unpleasant for America, because they are involved in outrages all over the world.... I love my homeland, and even if I were not on the list I would never buy a ticket to America."
Over the weekend, Russia responded with its own list of 18 alleged human rights-violating US citizens, who have never been prosecuted under the US justice system, and who will be barred from entering Russia.
The Russian list includes former Bush administration legal counsel John Yoo, who authored the infamous "torture memo," which made a legal case for the use of "enhanced interrogation" techniques on terror detainees. Also named are David Addington, former Vice President Dick Cheney's chief of staff, two former commanders of the Guantanamo Bay Detention Center, and several other US prosecutors and special agents who are accused of violating the rights of Russians abroad.
In a statement, the Russian foreign ministry argued that its list was more legitimate than the US one, and was only compiled to illustrate how offensive the Magnitsky List is to Russia.
"This war of lists was not our decision, but we do not have the right to ignore such open blackmail," the statement said. "It’s time for the politicians in Washington to finally realize that it is fruitless to base a relationship with a country such as Russia on an attitude of mentorship and overt dictation."
'It's painful for Russian officials'
Russian human rights activists insist they have no use for the "false equivalence" constructed by politicians, and say they believe legislation like the Magnitsky Act is the best way to put pressure on corrupt Russian officials who have nothing to fear from their own country's justice system. A poll taken last November by the independent Levada Center in Moscow found that many Russians were happy to see the US taking aim at Russian bureaucrats accused of criminality: 39 percent of respondents "fully or mostly" agreed with the import of the Magnitsky Act, while just 14 percent reacted negatively to it.
"The method chosen by US lawmakers is one of the few effective ways to influence official behavior in Russia. It's painful for Russian officials, and you can tell that by their reaction," says Sergei Davidis, a lawyer and board member of the opposition Solidarnost movement.
"Of course they're complaining not about the substance of the law but about abstract principles, how it violates Russian sovereignty, what a bad precedent it is. But basically, the idea of making Russian officials individually accountable for their acts is what they just cannot accept," he adds.
Others argue that while the current tit-for-tat war of lists is probably containable if it remains at 18 names on each side, a mechanism has been created that can fly out of control amid any future downturn of relations.
"Today there is one number, tomorrow there can be many more. The US has created a stratum of global outcasts, and any Russian leader's name can appear on that list one day," says Alexei Makarkin, deputy director of the independent Center for Political Technologies in Moscow.
"Russian authorities already had the impression that we are besieged, discriminated against, singled out, and now here comes this Magnitsky List. The fate of a few individual Russian officials may not concern the Kremlin too deeply, but this precedent really does," he adds.