Putin’s response was to claim that he needed to skip Camp David in order to put together a new government cabinet — even though he is now the president, not the prime minister. Some Russian analysts dismissed that explanation; they posited that Putin was offended by the State Department’s mild criticism of the beatings of demonstrators during his inauguration last week. Others speculated that he was managing serious behind-the-scenes power struggles.
Either way, Putin appears lukewarm at best about the main cause of Obama’s focus on him: his ambition to conclude a groundbreaking nuclear weapons accord in 2013. The deal would go well beyond the New START treaty of 2010 and aim at a radical, long-term reduction of the U.S. and Russian arsenals. It would be Obama’s legacy achievement on the foreign-policy issue that most engages him, and the retroactive justification for his Nobel Peace Prize.
Putin, however, doesn’t seem terribly interested. A seven-point directive on relations with the United States he issued last week listed “further reduction of strategic offensive arms” sixth, and said they “are possible only within the context of taking into account any and all factors influencing global strategic stability.” That means missile defense: Point seven reiterates Moscow’s demand for “firm guarantees” about U.S. anti-ballistic missile systems.
Obama’s fixation on a nuclear deal has prompted a major turnaround in his treatment of Putin, whom he shunned for three years in the hope of promoting the supposedly more “reformist” Dmitry Medvedev. Though he might have waited several days to call, Obama nevertheless congratulated Putin on an election that international observers said was neither free nor fair. He has made repeal of the 1974 Jackson-Vanik amendment, which limits U.S. trade with Russia, a priority in Congress this spring.
What’s striking about this strategy is its disregard for the biggest foreign-policy lesson of Obama’s first term. The Arab Spring showed that “engagement” with autocratic leaders isn’t wise if their grip is slipping. With thousands of opposition demonstrators
roaming the streets of Moscow and clashing with his security forces, Putin looks more than a little like Hosni Mubarak or Bashar al-Assad when Obama was courting them three years ago: For now he’s in control — but his governing model is broken, and his country is beginning to turn on him.
A little bet-hedging would seem to be in order, particularly given Putin’s stiffing of a presidential invitation. That’s why the most wrongheaded piece of the administration’s policy may be its continuing and stubborn opposition to the “Magnitsky bill” — a piece of legislation, authored by Democrats, that aims to restore human rights to the center of U.S.-Russian relations.
Sergei Magnitsky, after whom the bill is named, was a Russian lawyer who uncovered a $230 million embezzlement scheme by Russian tax and interior ministry officials; those same officials had him put in prison, where mistreatment led to his 2009 death. The bill, sponsored in the Senate by Sen. Benjamin Cardin (D-Md.) and in the House by Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.), would strip those officials of U.S. visa rights and freeze any of their assets in U.S. banks. More important, it would mandate the same treatment of any other Russian officials involved in gross human rights violations.
This sanction strikes at the heart of the web of corruption around Putin. Moscow’s bureaucratic mafiosi rely heavily on foreign bank accounts; they vacation in France, send their children to U.S. colleges and take refuge in London when they fall from Putin’s favor. The fear and loathing provoked in Moscow by the bill is encapsulated by item No. 3 on Putin’s new priority list: “Work actively on preventing unilateral extraterritorial sanctions by the U.S. against Russian legal entities and individuals.”
Incredibly, Obama has sided with Putin against Congress. His lobbyists have tried repeatedly to block the bill, even though it has become key to passing the trade legislation Obama wants. As the measure moved toward a vote in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee last month, senior White House and State Department officials demanded that it be postponed until after Putin’s visit to Camp David.
Now that Putin has canceled, maybe it’s time to put human rights in Russia back on the agenda.