The recent Russian threats to cease crucial cooperation with the United States and statements by Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and Dmitry Rogozin, Russia’s special representative for missile defense cooperation with NATO, raised hackles in Washington. Mr. Putin called the United States a «parasite» on the body of the global economy, while Mr. Rogozin claimed that U.S. senators told him U.S. missile defense is aimed at his country.
Mr. Putin’s statements are baffling, as the global economy needs consumer consumption for growth and the United States is by far the biggest consumer country. In fact, the U.S. trade deficit drives a lot of global growth. Mr. Putin spoke at his United Russia Party youth camp on Lake Seliger, while Mr. Rogozin let his hair down on a visit to Washington after a meeting with two U.S. senators. Two Senate staffers vehemently denied Mr. Rogozin’s allegations in a lengthy discussion with this author.
These are no longer words alone: Russia is threatening to stop cooperating with the United States over Afghanistan, Iran, Libya and North Korea if Congress passes the Sergei Magnitsky sanctions. The toughening Russian negotiating positions and rhetoric – including Mr. Putin’s outburst and Mr. Rogozin’s reference to the senators as «monsters of the Cold War» – suggest the Obama «reset» policy is in deep trouble.
The State Department has placed 64 Russian officials on a visa blacklist that would prevent them from entering the United States. These officials – prosecutors and policemen – all played a role in the death of the lawyer Sergei Magnitsky, the most famous whistleblower in post-communist Russian history.
The Foreign Ministry in Moscow loudly protested that the United States is being tough on Russia. But the imposition of sanctions looks more like the State Department’s pre-emptive way to prevent the Senate’s Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act of 2011 (S. 1039) from passing.
Russia has threatened to «respond asymmetrically» against the Obama administration’s «reset» policy if the bill becomes law. In a tit for tat, the Russian foreign ministry reportedly is drawing up a list of U.S. officials who will be banned from Russia and prevented from banking there. While this may be of little concern to Washington, Russian threats to curb cooperation on Afghanistan, Iran, Libya and North Korea are taken more seriously.
To reiterate, Sergei Magnitsky, a lawyer representing Hermitage Capital, which was then the largest Western hedge fund operating in Russia, was arrested on spurious tax-evasion charges. Magnitsky alleged that Russian officials swindled $230 million in tax rebates. He died before his trial in 2009 after being denied essential medical care and possibly tortured and beaten. President Dmitry Medvedev said that those who were in charge of Magnitsky committed crimes.
Russia has reluctantly launched investigations into the matter, but the Russian Interior Ministry promoted the Magnitsky interrogators and even pinned medals on them. The case irritated U.S. lawmakers who are actively pursuing this case.
In a way, the U.S. Congress is doing Russia a huge favor. Without external prodding, there is no hope for improvement in that country’s rule of law and investment climate. In fact, S. 1039 is not aimed exclusively at the Magnitsky affair. Other brutal and corrupt officials may be included, such as those who persecuted and expropriated Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the former oil magnate. And the bill is not singling out Russia, either. It would target the most notorious wrongdoers in other countries as well.
Now, the U.S. State Department appears to pre-empt and obviate the Senate bill by placing some Russian officials on a visa blacklist. Unlike the Senate, the State Department did not go any further, such as implementing asset freezes.
Foggy Bottom opposes the Magnitsky bill and is campaigning for its defeat. However, according to David J. Kramer, president of Freedom House and the former assistant secretary of state for human rights in the George W. Bush administration, the bill has been integral in keeping the pressure on Russia and has «done more for the cause of human rights [in Russia] than anything done» by the two previous administrations. Mr. Kramer is right.
The Obama administration is worried that inconvenient pressure from Congress may derail the hallowed «reset» policy. President Obama called the «reset» his «great achievement» only days after Mr. Putin’s «parasite» outburst. Maybe he was encouraged by Russia’s issuing a series of postage stamps to commemorate his 50th birthday.
If one takes the White House at its word and the «reset» is truly based on mutual interests between Russia and the United States – not on efforts to appease Moscow into cooperation on nuclear disarmament – then cleaning the Augean stables of Russian corruption and criminality should not derail it.
Yet Moscow’s overblown reaction to the visa ban for suspected criminals working for the Russian state clearly demonstrates its priorities and exposes its anti-Americanism. As Mr. Kramer points out, if Russia is willing to hold back the reset solely based on the Magnitsky case, then the U.S. needs «to re-examine the relationship.»
The U.S. policy toward Russia and other market authoritarians should be a balance of protecting American national interests and upholding American values. The cause of Sergei Magnitsky does that. The flagging «reset» policy does no.
By Ariel Cohen, a senior research fellow in Russian and Eurasian Studies and International Energy Policy at the Heritage Foundation.