The conventional account of what’s happening in U.S.-Russian relations these days goes something like this: Some Americans, notably Maryland’s Democratic Senator Benjamin Cardin, were outraged when a Russian lawyer named Sergei Magnitsky was arrested on what appeared to be trumped up charges and then died in police custody. It seemed to be all too typical of Russian human rights abuses, and Cardin pushed for legislation to sanction Russians involved in such abuses by denying them entrance to the United States and use of its banking system.
Russian leaders were furious when Congress passed the "Magnitsky Rule" as part of legislation repealing a relic of the Cold War called the Jackson-Vanik Amendment. They were further enraged when President Obama signed the legislation on December 14. So the Russian legislature, in what seemed like an action of pique, promptly passed legislation to ban the adoption of Russian children by U.S. families. It was designed to get the attention of Americans and it succeeded, as the move received widespread and prominent play throughout the U.S. media.
Oh, and incidentally, the Russian legislation, in a more direct response to the Magnitsky Rule, allows for the imposition of sanctions against U.S. officials thought to have violated human rights. Also, it bars any political activity by Russian nongovernmental organizations receiving funding from the United States.
As I say, that’s the conventional version. It would appear that diplomatic relations between the two countries have descended to a level of abject pettiness, notwithstanding the serious issues separating them.
Now let’s look at what’s really going on. It wasn’t widely reported in the U.S. media, but the Magnitsky Rule was far more than a mere symbolic gesture reflecting America’s devotion to the rule of law. It was a dagger pointed at the heart of Russia’s existing governmental structure. The question that caused jitters in Moscow centered on who would get on the U.S. list of Russian officials who couldn’t come to America or do business here—and how would they get placed on the list. To understand the significance of this, it’s helpful to look at both the Senate and House versions of the legislation as it made its way through Congress.
Cardin’s Senate version did not single out Russia specifically but rather applied to anyone around the world guilty of human rights violations. It was global in scope and hence didn’t carry the sting of insult that would emerge with a single-nation target. Beyond that, the power to put specific individuals on the list was left in the hands of State Department officials, who would operate behind a veil of secrecy.
The House version was directed exclusively at Russia, and the sanctions list would be maintained in the open. Further, certain designated members of Congress, based on committee assignments and chairmanships, were empowered to put forth names of Russian officials they felt should be on the Magnitsky List. Their selections could be aired publicly pending a State Department review.
Here’s where the Magnitsky legislation became a powerful salient directed against the Russian government. Opposition forces in Russia have ongoing access to favored legislators in the United States, and this provision of the bill gave them potent leverage against government officials whose actions were considered offensive by the opposition. They can say: If we don’t like your policies, we’ll get you on the Magnitsky List.
That’s a designation that no Russian official would want to hazard. But the problem for Russia’s government officials would be much more severe if the European Union were to adopt the Magnitsky principle, as many adherents of the U.S. legislation are urging. That’s because, while few Russian officials visit America for pleasure or buy vacation homes here, many have substantial property and financial interests in Europe.
Thus, when Russian government leaders complain about U.S. meddling in their internal affairs, they’re not talking just about symbolic actions. They’re talking about an effort on the part of the United States to alter the balance of political power in the Russian polity.
That’s why it’s a bit amusing to see the U.S. coverage of the new Russian law banning the adoption of Russian children by Americans. Human rights groups churn out literature decrying the use of young children as political footballs in a senseless diplomatic game. But that’s mostly a smokescreen. President Obama reportedly asked Putin to ensure the Russian reaction to Magnitsky wouldn’t be harmful economically, and Putin complied because he wants U.S. investment. Instead, he went after American heartstrings.
But the serious piece was the ban on NGO activity for those who accept American money. The Russian political opposition operates largely under the auspices of NGOs, and many of them take substantial amounts of American money. Hence, this provision destroys the leverage these opposition groups felt they had won through the Magnitsky Rule. If they use the threat of the Magnitsky List to keep government officials back on their heels, Putin will simply put them out of business through application of the new NGO rule.
Thus do we see that this Magnitsky-adoption drama is anything but petty. Big issues are at stake, particularly for Putin and his government. But it does seem frivolous. Why, we might ask, are two major powers with much at stake in their relationship spending so much time, energy and wiles getting into each other’s knickers? And why do U.S. leaders feel such a need to hammer away at Russia’s internal structures when there are so many more important matters facing the two countries, matters that could be dealt with far more easily and effectively if these frivolous gestures didn’t get in the way?
This is not to minimize the seriousness of the trend in Russia toward increasingly authoritarian behavior on the part of its leaders, starting with Putin. Nor does it question the seriousness of official corruption in that country, also unfortunately on the rise and a blight on its society and people. Such lapses justify stern American expressions of opprobrium.
At the same time, Russia is hardly as repressive as many other nations, including U.S. allies such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar. And it certainly isn’t more corrupt than, say, Afghanistan, where the United States has been investing significant blood and treasure to protect the current government. Hence, it seems unwise as well as unseemly for America to put forth legislation so easily interpreted as an anti-Putin bill and so easily viewed as designed to bring the Russian government to its knees.
Perhaps this latest round of gotcha diplomacy can be deftly contained by Obama and Putin when the two men meet early in the new year. But this byplay is on the cusp of spinning out of control, with serious consequences for the U.S.-Russian relationship. That wouldn’t be in Russia’s interest. But, more significantly for Americans, it wouldn’t be in the U.S. interest either.
Robert W. Merry is editor of The National Interest  and the author of books on American history and foreign policy. His most recent book is Where They Stand: The American Presidents in the Eyes of Voters and Historians .
Image: Flickr/AZRainman .