U.S. relations with Russia have been in sharp decline since Vladimir Putin came to power in 2001 and the unipolar world of the post-Cold War became increasingly complex.
Since then, conflicting Russian policy objectives have created an approach to bilateral relations with the United States that can at times be pragmatic but is more often focused on maintaining a projection of Russian power in the country’s near-abroad and the global stage. Human rights practices have been abysmal under Mr. Putin, and the United States has struggled to find constructive ways to spur reforms and promote the rule of law. Even with a concerted “reset” effort over the course of President Obama’s first administration, relations with Russia have continued to deteriorate. As the President’s second term is now well under way, the question remains: how will the United States find ways to bring Russia into the international fold in order to tackle wide-ranging issues affecting global security?
The most recent blow to U.S.-Russian relations came a few weeks ago, when the Administration finalized a list of eighteen Russians forbidden from traveling or having financial assets in the United States as required by the so-called Magnitsky Act. Despite Congress’s best efforts to highlight human rights abuses in Russia in this most recent piece of legislation, the Act does little to address the root cause of Russia’s disregard for the rule of law; instead, it increases the likelihood of hostility between our two countries and makes constructive cooperation on a number of national security issues more difficult to continue. Too much of the United States’ policy towards Russia has been aimed at punishing the country for not being Western enough, when the goal should be making Russia a team player in the international order.
As part of this punitive tendency in relations with Russia, the Magnitsky Act was passed to replace outdated Cold-War-era legislation which singled out Russia for its abuse of human rights. Unfortunately, the Act may do little to combat these abuses while complicating bilateral cooperation. Following over a decade of efforts to accede to the WTO, Russia was finally granted membership in August 2012 as one of the largest economies outside the organization and at the urging of the U.S. Administration. Even as Russia entered the global trade regime, the United States was not be able to fully benefit from the associated changes in tariffs until the repeal of the Jackson-Vanik Amendment, a 1974 law preventing the extension of Permanent Normal Trade Relations (PNTR) to the USSR because of its refusal to allow Jews to leave the prejudiced Soviet system. Until December of last year, the law had survived the dissolution of the state it was designed to punish, being applied to the new Russian Federation for the last decade despite there being no prohibitions on emigration since Gorbachev’s perestroika. In the same Bill extending PNTR to Russia, Congress passed the Magnitsky Act, satisfying Congressional desire to appear as tough as ever on Russian human rights abuses. The law requires the Administration to identify those involved in the 2009 prison death of whistleblower Sergei Magnitsky and apply travel and financial restrictions on them. The outcome of this legislative slap on Russia may well extend beyond the finite list of banned Russians, with implications for our broader bilateral relationship, or more likely, it will turn out to be an inconsequential bump in the already potted road to real partnership with Russia
To be sure, the U.S. has an interest in improving the legal environment and human rights regime in Russia, but there are several problems with linking trade and human rights abuses in Russia. The least of these unfortunate linkages has been negating the positive feelings the repeal of Jackson-Vanik should have created. As purely symbolic efforts go, Congress could have demonstrated to Russia that, despite our difference of opinion on many issues, human rights included, mutual prosperity and economic ties are areas in which our countries have shared interests. Surely this was behind the Administration’s push for Russian membership in the WTO; by backing Russian inclusion in international organizations, the U.S. hopes to increase dialogue and reinforce international norms in Russia, including those that relate to human rights and rule of law. Existing fora for highlighting human rights offenses in Russia, such as the yearly State Department report, OSCE, and Council of Europe, present a more productive way for the U.S. and its like-minded allies to keep pressure on rights abusers in Russia, and around the globe, in a way that does not single out any country and can be couched in multilateral terms. The United States should pursue initiatives that bring openness, opportunity, and international engagement to Russia. Promoting Russian membership in international organizations, sharing governance best practices, and engaging in joint efforts, such as the recently expanded Afghanistan Helicopter Maintenance Trust Fund, are but a few ways the U.S. can achieve its goal of making it easier for Russian leaders to respect their citizens’ rights and to prod their government into being a good partner.
Thankfully, Presidents Obama and Putin seem to be moving past the drama of the Magnitsky Act and have scheduled personal meetings on the sidelines of the June G-8 meeting in Northern Ireland and the September bilateral summit in Russia. This will give the two leaders the opportunity to discuss the deteriorating situation in Syria, as well as the ongoing debate over missile defense in Europe. These are areas in which Russia is a deciding factor in resolving conflict, and they present the opportunity for Russia to exert its global influence in a positive way. To cement cooperative agreements on either front would be a big win for the bilateral relationship and American national security, and increased economic interconnectedness will make both negotiation processes more amicable.
Russia’s legal development, economic health, and ability to contribute as a global partner are all intricately linked, and U.S. policymakers are wise to remember this fact. As the only other country to possess comparable numbers of nuclear weapons and as a neighbor to several regions of critical importance to American national security interests, Russia is and will continue to be an indispensable partner on antiterrorism efforts, combating extremism, and nonproliferation. Human rights abuses will continue to be rampant in Russia and across the Former Soviet Union, and the U.S. needs to remain vigilant in promoting transparency and rule of law. Washington must strike a flexible balance between enacting efficacious cooperation and maintaining a leading role in promoting human rights as we continue to rely on Moscow for intelligence sharing, transit routes to Afghanistan, and a powerful voice on nonproliferation – all efforts that keep Americans safe at home and abroad.
The lasting impact of the Magnitsky Act on our ability to strike that balance is yet to be seen, but it is safe to say that its impact on human rights practices in Russia will be negligible.