PRESIDENT OBAMA’S hopes of forging a partnership with Vladimir Putin after his return to the Russian presidency appear to be fading fast. With a meeting between the two presidents due Monday, Russia is rebuffing U.S. appeals for cooperation in stopping the massacres in Syria, while continuing to supply the regime of Bashar al-Assad with weapons. Meanwhile the Kremlin is cracking down on Russians seeking democratic reform or fighting corruption. This month a prominent journalist was forced to flee the country after a senior government official reportedly threatened to kill him.
Apart from occasional public expressions of exasperation, the administration isn’t reacting much to the cold wind from Moscow. Instead it is pressing Congress to pass a piece of legislation much sought by Mr. Putin: repeal of the 1974 Jackson-Vanik amendment, which conditions trade preferences for Russia on free emigration. On its face the repeal makes sense; if the law is not changed, U.S. companies will be disadvantaged when Russia joins the World Trade Organization this summer. But a bill that grants Russia trade preferences and removes human rights conditions hardly seems the right response to Mr. Putin’s recent behavior.
That’s why momentum in Congress appears to be swinging behind a bipartisan initiative to couple the Jackson-Vanik repeal with a new human rights provision. The Magnitsky act, whose prime author has been Sen. Benjamin Cardin (D-Md.), would sanction Russian officials “responsible for extrajudicial killings, torture, or other gross violations of internationally recognized human rights.”
The bill is named after Sergei Magnitsky, a lawyer who uncovered a $230 million embezzlement scheme by Russia tax and interior ministry officials, then was imprisoned by those same officials and subjected to mistreatment that led to his death. The bill is due to be taken up Tuesday by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and could later be attached to the Russia trade bill under a deal struck between Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.).
The appeal of the legislation is its sharp focus: It will affect only those found to be involved in Mr. Magnitsky’s death or the mistreatment of other Russians fighting corruption or abuses of human rights. It would punish people like the senior law enforcement official who allegedly threatened to kill Sergei Sokolov of the Novaya Gazeta newspaper, then appoint himself investigator of the crime. Those sanctioned will be denied the U.S. visas they prize, and their dollar bank accounts — often used to siphon illicit gains out of the country — will be frozen. Importantly, their names will be published, which could make them pariahs elsewhere in the West.
Aware that the Magnitsky bill is needed to pass the trade legislation, the administration has been seeking to gut the former by introducing language that would allow the State Department to waive sanctions or the publication of names on national security grounds. Some waiver authority may be appropriate if it is narrowly cast; senators are considering a provision that would allow the names of some of those sanctioned to be classified temporarily on a case-by-case basis. What’s most important is that Congress send Mr. Putin and his cadres the message that their lawless behavior will have consequences.