Washington and Moscow's Downward Spiral

Tit-for-tat actions and reactions in the U.S. and Russian legislatures threaten to destabilize bilateral relations.

The destructive pendulum of tit-for-tat action in the U.S.-Russian relationship continues to swing unabated. The latest swing came last week, when Russian president Vladimir Putin announced he would sign a bill passed overwhelmingly by the Duma, which, among other provisions, bans U.S. citizens from adopting Russian children. It also prohibits nongovernmental organizations receiving funding from the United States to engage in political activity if such activity is deemed to be "detrimental" to Russian interests, as well as bars entry into Russia of any U.S. official accused of human-rights violations.

This bill, the so-called Dima Yakovlev law, named after a Russian boy adopted in the United States who died from heat exhaustion after being left in a vehicle by his foster father in Virginia in 2008, was in response to the Sergei Magnitsky Act, which places travel bans and financial sanctions on Russian officials accused of human-rights violations. Ostensibly, the purpose of the Magnitsky bill was to signal American outrage at the circumstances surrounding the detention and death of the lawyer Sergei Magnitsky, something I discussed at length earlier this year.

The Kremlin was always going to complain about any sort of U.S. action that would seek to impose American sanctions against Russian officials. But the way in which Congress acted was problematic.

First, given a choice between a so-called global bill—one that would impose sanctions against government officials from any country accused of systematically abusing human rights without facing any sort of accountability from the domestic judicial system—and a bill that only focused on Russia, Congress chose the latter. Victims who have suffered abuse similar to that endured by Magnitsky at the hands of officials from other countries, particularly those with close economic or security ties to the United States, still have no redress from the U.S. Congress.

Second, Congress, having failed to graduate Russia from the 1974 Jackson-Vanik sanctions despite repeated presidential certifications (by both Democratic and Republican occupants of the White House) that Russia was in compliance with its provisions since 1994 created an unhelpful impression: that Congress' real aim in tying Magnitsky sanctions to the granting of permanent normal trading relations was to punish Moscow (for a whole host of sins ranging from bans on chicken exports to restrictions on American religious missionary activity) and avoid giving up congressional leverage on how U.S. and Russian presidents conduct the bilateral relationship.

Despite all the talk of reset and partnership, there are strong currents in both Washington and Moscow prepared to sweep in the opposite direction, to always assume the worst of the other side. Matters are not helped by the tendency in the United States, in the case of any dispute between Russia and its neighbors, to generally side against Russia automatically, as well as the continuing interest on the part of Russian officials to flirt with geopolitical foes of the United States like Iran or Venezuela.

When the Magnitsky legislation passed, as part of the overall package that finally granted Russia permanent normal trading relations (thus clearing the way for U.S. companies to benefit from Russian membership in the World Trade Organization), the initial reaction in Russia was to propose "mirror" legislation that would bar American officials whom Russia accused of human-rights violations from entering Russia. However, it soon became clear that while many Russians are interested in being able to travel to and do business in the United States, there is no reciprocal level of desire from the U.S. side. Simply mirroring U.S. legislation, while it might have preserved a sense of equanimity, would not have much impact. So the Duma raised the stakes—not only enacting travel bans, but focusing on two other areas as well: blocking adoptions of Russian orphans by U.S. citizens (since the fall of the USSR some sixty thousand children have found homes with American families) and placing new restrictions on U.S.-funded groups. (A separate issue is how orphans are being used as pawns in a political struggle; orphans not adopted by Americans will not be adopted by Russians or other Europeans.)

Of course, the Russian side has been careful not to pick on aspects of the U.S.-Russian relationship that bring concrete benefits to Russia. Thus, no sanctions were enacted against U.S. companies investing in key sectors of the Russian economy (e.g., no ban on the partnership between the Russian state oil company Rosneft and Exxon Mobil, a critical relationship if the Russian energy sector, particularly in the Arctic, is to be further developed). Nor did the Duma decide to put any barriers in the continued functioning of the Northern Distribution Network funneling supplies and personnel to Afghanistan—a critical lifeline not only for U.S. and NATO forces but also a lucrative source of revenue for Russian firms.

When the Duma passed its bill, President Putin could have decided that he had signaled Russian outrage and then chosen to veto the bill in the interests of preserving good relations with Washington. He chose not to do this. It is not the first time that a president has chosen to be a domestic politician rather than an international statesman.

The ball is now in the U.S. court. But it is likely that soon a return volley will be served. In November, even before the Duma bill restricting the activities of U.S.-sponsored NGOs had passed, a key member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Senator Jeanne Shaheen, noted that, in any consideration of U.S.-Russian relations, shared interests would not be enough to sustain the relationship; a Russian government that respects the rights and freedoms of its people is deemed to be in the national interest of the United States.

With that understanding, and given the timing of the adoption ban at the Christmas season, there will be considerable pressure on Congress and President Obama himself to respond. One idea already making the rounds is to apply Magnitsky sanctions to Duma legislators who voted for the bill, which would inevitably bring a counter-reaction from the Duma. Right now, some key aspects of the U.S.-Russian relationship—the partnership on Afghanistan, cooperation on the Arctic and some other key security issues—remain sufficiently ring-fenced from these other problems in the bilateral relationship. But the continuing erosion of whatever progress was achieved in the "reset" during the presidency of Dmitri Medvedev and the first Obama term could threaten even these items.

What is happening validates the warning I offered at an event held at the Center for the National Interest this past August. Major public feuds between Washington and Moscow could have a "snowball effect"—and ultimately threaten even productive areas of cooperation. 2013 promises to be an uphill struggle to get U.S.-Russian relations back on an even keel.

Nikolas K. Gvosdev, a senior editor at The National Interest, is a professor of national-security studies at the U.S. Naval War College. The views expressed are entirely his own.