January 3, 2013

For Americans who understand the importance of a cooperative U.S.-Russia relationship, 2012 was a disturbing year. The attempted “reset” in relations — launched by the Obama administration in 2009 — proved a failure, as Washington continued to develop unneeded missile defense installations near Russia’s border, Russia passed legislation imperiling the status of U.S.-funded nongovernmental organizations working in the country and the bloody civil wars in Libya and Syria created new misunderstandings and diplomatic vitriol between Moscow and Washington.

Until now, very few U.S. observers have had the foresight to warn of what we may now be witnessing — the onset of a new Cold War. My husband, Stephen F. Cohen, is one of the few: In articles in the Nation since the 1990s — see more recently his March 2012 article, “America’s Failed Bipartisan Russia Policy,” and his 2010 paperback “Soviet Fates and Lost Alternatives” — he has repeatedly warned that unless U.S. policy toward post-Soviet Russia changed, we risked plunging into a new Cold War.

That possibility emerged clearly last month when, in the space of a few weeks, Barack Obama and Vladimir Putin both signed punitive bills into law: the United States’ Magnitsky Act and Russia’s adoption ban, or “Dima’s Law.” Both leaders signed with reluctance, but neither president proved willing to defy nearly unanimous legislatures bent on passing unwise legislation. As Russia experts Vladimir Sobell, Edward Lozansky and Cohen warned at TheNation.com, “The ‘Magnitsky Act’ violates the rule of law, contradicts American values and undermines US national security.” Framed by its supporters as a human rights bill that would punish officials implicated in the prison death of a Russian attorney, the law is actually more sweeping, a requirement that the executive branch punish individual Russians based on unproven allegations, without any due process.

In response, Russian legislators passed, and Putin signed, a bill banning all adoptions of Russian children by U.S. families. It’s an act of cruelty that will hurt the most innocent of victims: children in need of a home who are languishing in poorly funded institutions. Hopefully, its consequences will be mitigated by increased adoptions from other countries and by Russian families themselves. But given that thousands of Russian children have become available for international adoption only after repeated rejections by potential Russian parents, the new policy will mean more children will remain orphans until they reach 18. This even includes some kids whose legal adoptions by U.S. parents were already well underway but now will be canceled unless Putin moves to delay the implementation of the new law. 

Following a unanimous U.S. Senate resolution Tuesday condemning the adoption ban, the Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute also announced yesterday that it is working with the State Department to appeal for clemency for those 50-some kids. And as Cohen has pointed out, a recently signed U.S.-Russian adoption treaty requires a year’s notice before it can be abrogated by either side, which gives Putin a way to enable at least those 50-some to come to the United States. As of yet, there is no sign he will do this, but some wise public and private U.S. diplomacy might help. 

It didn’t have to be this way. In fact, even if Putin was determined to retaliate against the Magnitsky Act, there were alternatives. Those included selling off U.S. dollars and transferring much of Russia’s national wealth fund to another currency or slowing NATO weapons shipments to Afghanistan.

Adoptions by U.S. parents have long been a charged issue in Russia. A series of tragic cases involving the deaths of Russian children adopted by American parents have received enraged attention in the Russian media, tapping into a deeper nationalist discontent.  This powerful current — along with the hope that reduced adoptions from abroad will help spur improvements to Russia’s orphanage and adoption system — may help explain why the ban won overwhelming support in both houses of parliament and a 56 percent approval rating in a recent public opinion survey.

If there’s good news to be found in this ongoing debacle, it may be this: The Russian ban exposed important divisions within the country’s political elite, drawing opposition from, for example, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, Deputy Prime Minister Olga Golodets and Russia’s Human Rights Commission. It also inspired large-scale protests by Russians against the use of children as political pawnsAnd Russia’s news agency, Novosti, reported that members of the parliament’s Committee for Constitutional Legislation and Nation Building may consider an online petition opposing the law. The petition, organized by the media outlet Novaya Gazeta, drew more than 100,000 supporters. 

Until now, most anti-Russia and anti-Putin sentiment has been located among the American elite. Russia’s adoption ban may now generate such sentiments among the U.S. public and further strengthen the hand of American cold warriors (already, thousands have signed a petition to Obama urging that Russian legislators who supported the adoption ban be subjected to the punishments specified by the Magnitsky bill). Alas, each time leaders cater to nationalist resentment in their own country, they increase domestic pressures on their counterparts across the ocean to do the same. 

This ugly standoff keeps escalating. And given the dire issues facing both countries — from Afghanistan, Iran and Syria to the spread of nuclear weapons around the world — it could have deadly consequences, which will only be abetted by a new Cold War.