It’s been two years now since President Obama heralded a new era in U.S.-Russian relations -- a “reset,” as he put it. His plan was to “cooperate more effectively in areas of common interest.” He and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev were “committed to leaving behind the suspicion and the rivalry of the past.”
Fast forward to the present. Have things improved? Considering that Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin recently called the United States a “parasite” on the global economy, and the U.S. State Department has put 64 Russian officials on a visa blacklist, it’s fair to say: Not much.
The latest round of trouble springs from the case of the late Sergei Magnitsky, whose name is probably unfamiliar to many Americans. A lawyer for one of the largest Western hedge funds in Russia, Magnitsky in 2008 accused Russian officials of swindling $230 million in tax rebates. Even in post-Cold War Russia, it was a bold move.
Magnitsky soon found himself arrested for … tax evasion. He died in police custody before his trial, having been denied medical care. There were also reports that he had been tortured and beaten. Reliable reports, it appears: Medvedev himself said the officials in charge of Magnitsky were guilty of crimes.
The Magnitsky case led to the “Sergey Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act,” which was introduced in the U.S. Senate in May. “While this bill bears Sergei Magnitsky’s name in honor of his sacrifice, the language addresses the overall issue of the erosion of the rule of law and human rights in Russia,” said Sen. Benjamin Cardin, D-Md. “It offers hope to those who suffer in silence, whose cases may be less known or not known at all.”
The State Department visa blacklist, for its part, contains the names of prosecutors and policemen who played a role in Magnitsky’s death. The last thing Russian officials want is a spotlight, however well-deserved, on their deplorable human-rights record. Forget reform -- they’d rather retaliate.
And so they’re threatening to stop cooperating with the United States over Afghanistan, Iran, Libya and North Korea if the Magnitsky bill passes Congress. Missile defense has re-entered the debate as well -- another sign that things haven’t changed all that much.
Dmitry Rogozin, Moscow’s envoy to NATO as well as on matters involving missile defense, claims that U.S. senators told him the U.S. system is aimed at Russia. His diplomatic reference to the U.S. lawmakers? “Monsters of the Cold War.” Ah, reset.
And in response to the U.S. visa blacklist (which, according to Heritage Foundation Russia expert Ariel Cohen, was drawn up by State Department officials who dislike the Senate bill), Medvedev has ordered the Foreign Ministry to create a list, too -- of U.S. officials who would be banned from traveling to Russia or banking there.
Not just any U.S. officials are on that list, mind you. It includes prosecutors and law-enforcement officials who are working on two very interesting cases: that of Victor Boot, who is accused of supplying arms to terrorists, and that of Konstantin Yaroshenko, a weapons-and-drug-smuggling pilot captured in Africa. “Russian diplomacy now appears to fly cover for suspected organized criminals,” Cohen writes.
Moscow may chafe at the Magnitsky bill and other criticisms, but there’s virtually no chance that officials there would implement any kind of reform without outside prodding. As Cohen notes, Congress is actually doing Russia a favor. David J. Kramer, president of Freedom House and former assistant secretary of state for human rights under President George W. Bush, says merely introducing the bill has “done more for the cause of human rights [in Russia] than anything done” by the two previous administrations.
The reset button is broken. But pressure still works.