Lost in the tumult concerning the debt-ceiling has been a stunning development in the Russia-U.S. relationship. As U.S. lawmakers have made tentative efforts to begin to crack down on human rights violations in Russia, Russia has launched an all-out effort of intimidation.
World Affairs reported:
Two weeks after a bipartisan group of US senators introduced a bill that would ban Russian human rights violators from entering the United States, one of the prime candidates for the blacklist hastily flew into Washington. Vladislav Surkov, the Kremlin’s longtime deputy chief of staff and one of the main architects of its authoritarian policies, arrived in DC on Monday — ostensibly to discuss the business of the US-Russia working group on civil society, cochaired from the American side by Michael McFaul, President Obama’s senior Russia adviser and soon-to-be ambassador in Moscow. Discussions were conducted in secrecy: no official comments or press releases were issued by either side, before or after the meeting. According to the sources of Moscow’s New Times magazine, the real reason for Mr. Surkov’s visit was the Kremlin’s concern over the Senate initiative.
The Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act of 2011 (S.1039) proposes to revoke US visa privileges from Russian officials “responsible for … gross violations of human rights committed against individuals seeking … to obtain, exercise, defend, or promote internationally recognized human rights and freedoms, such as the freedoms of religion, expression, association, and assembly and the rights to a fair trial and democratic elections.” Mr. Surkov, whose Kremlin portfolio for the last twelve years — the years of the dismantling of Russia’s nascent democracy — has included dealing with the media, political parties, and elections, fits the description perfectly. Considered the regime’s chief political enforcer, Mr. Surkov has given off-the-record instructions about which politicians can and cannot appear on television, which rallies can and cannot be held in Moscow, which parties can and cannot be registered, what results must be achieved in elections.
Given his duties and his leadership of a youth group reminiscent of that in 1930s Germany (“the pro-Kremlin youth group that he described as the ‘combat detachment of our political system,’ and that has frequently harassed journalists, opposition supporters, and civil society activists”), it is fair to conclude that “Mr. Surkov is right to be worried. His latest trip to Washington may well have been his last.”
United Civil Front leader and Solidarity co-leader Garry Kasparov testified in support of the sanctions bill and listed Surkov as someone who should be targeted as a violator of Russia’s commitments regarding the rule of law and diplomatic relations. As the news report indicated, remarkably the man identified as a prime human rights offender co-chairs a working group on “civil society” in Russia along with recently named U.S. ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul. It seems that Surkov has a willing accomplice in the U.S. government to maintain his stature as a respected Russian advocate.
Fast forward to late July, when Josh Rogin of Foreign Policy reported on administration comments on the Russian sanctions bill:
“Senior Russian government officials have warned us that they will respond asymmetrically if legislation passes,” the document stated. “Their argument is that we cannot expect them to be our partner in supporting sanctions against countries like Iran, North Korea, and Libya, and sanction them at the same time. Russian officials have said that other areas of bilateral cooperation, including on transit Afghanistan, could be jeopardized if this legislation passes.”
“The Russian Duma has already proposed legislation that would institute similar travel bans and asset freezes for U.S. officials whose actions Russia deems in violations of the rights of Russian citizens arrested abroad and brought to the United States for trial,” the administration said.”
And if that were not enough, Russia’s ambassador to NATO publicly attacked two supporters of sanctions, Sens. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) and Mark Kirk (R-Ill.):
“Today in the Senate, I met with Senators Jon Kyl and Mark Kirk. The meeting is very useful because it shows that the alternative to Barack Obama is a collapse of all the programs of cooperation with Russia,” [Dmitry Rogozin] said. “Today, I had the impression that I was transported in a time machine back several decades, and in front of me sat two monsters of the Cold War, who looked at me not through pupils, but targeting sights....”
How has the Obama administration reacted to all this? The administration is actually trying to head off sweeping sanctions. The New York Times reported on the administration’s quiet effort to deny visas to some Russians. This “appeared calibrated to protect hard-won improvements in the ‘reset’ of relations between the two countries.” Pro-sanctions lawmakers were disturbed by the administrations tactics:
The Senate aide, who was not authorized to speak publicly, said the administration’s acknowledgment of the visa ban list might not be sufficient to persuade the Senate to repeal Jackson-Vanik without passing the Magnitsky law. The list, he said, failed to expressly prohibit entry into the United States of suspected rights abusers in other Russian cases ... and fell short of the more punishing measure of seizing assets.
When all of this broke, reporters at a State Department briefing bombarded spokesman Mark C. Toner with questions about Russian “reset.” A sample:
QUESTION: . . .Have the Russians threatened you in terms of their work, cooperation in Afghanistan, and linking it to this visa issue?
MR. TONER: Again, our relationship with Russia, the so-called reset, is based on areas where we can cooperate productively together. One of those areas is, in fact, Afghanistan, where we have seen a lot of progress, and we certainly appreciate the — Russia’s support for our efforts in Afghanistan, transportation over flights, and other capabilities they’ve allowed us to carry out. And we’re appreciative of that, but it’s certainly something that’s in Russia’s interest as well. . . .
QUESTION: Are you going to continue the engagement on this issue with Russia? I think that’s what he asked, but you didn’t —
MR. TONER: Sure. I think it’s safe to say that we’re going to continue to raise human rights cases and issues where we deem appropriate. . . .
QUESTION: But has [reset] yielded results in terms of human rights, or is that proving not to be a common interest?
MR. TONER: Well, again, I think that we are concerned about some human rights issues with respect to Russia, and as such, that’s part of our dialogue. That’s part of our conversation with them.
You get the gist.
And to top it all off, Eli Lake reported that the administration “concluded in a classified report late last year that Russia’s military intelligence was responsible for a bomb blast that occurred at an exterior wall of the U.S. Embassy in Tbilisi, Georgia, in September”:
“Those events — the embassy bombing and other alleged bombings — have been raised with the Russians at a high level and they have been raised with the Georgians at a high level,” one administration official said. “It’s not necessarily pointing a finger, but part of a dialogue expressing our deep concerns.”
Deep concerns. But not enough to disrupt our new relationship with Russia. And not enough, even with the blatant efforts to fend off a tough sanctions bill, to halt the administration’s efforts to get Russia into WTO.
In sum, Russia’s human rights atrocities, campaign of intimidation and even violence haven’t caused the administration to rethink its policy of appeasement, dressed up as “reset.” No wonder Russia doesn’t change its ways.