January 1, 2013

David J. Kramer is president of Freedom House, where Arch Puddington is vice president of research.

In a display of callousness unusual even by Vladimir Putin’s standards, Russia eliminated the possibility of a better life for thousands of orphans last week when Putin signed into law a ban on adoptions by Americans. The law is named for Dima Yakovlev, a Russian child adopted by U.S. parents who died after being left in a truck in the heat in Herndon. That case, and 18 other cited instances of Russian adoptees who died in the care of American parents, are tragedies. But the vast majority of the nearly 60,000 adoptions by American couples over the past two decades have enabled Russian children, some with severe disabilities, to lead happy lives.

Many American commentators have described the Yakovlev act as a response to recent U.S. legislation cracking down on Russian human rights abusers. Such analysis is deeply flawed and, insofar as it is shared by U.S. policymakers, will contribute to a serious misreading of the motives and goals that drive Putin as he sets Russia’s course.

The Sergei Magnitsky Act is named after a 37-year-old lawyer who was beaten, deprived of medical attention and left to die in a Russian prison nearly a year after uncovering a massive fraud allegedly committed by officials. The people Magnitsky implicated arrested him in 2008; a year after his death, several of the same officials were promoted and awarded. Last week, Russian prosecutors dropped charges against the only person formally accused in the case, meaning that Russia is holding no one accountable for Magnitsky’s death. Instead, even though he is dead, Magnitsky is being retried in the original fraud case brought against him.

While the Obama administration opposed the Magnitsky Act, the measure had strong bipartisan support and President Obama signed it last month as part of legislation granting Russia permanent normal trade relations. The Magnitsky bill is narrowly tailored, calling for Russian officials involved in gross human rights abuses to be banned from entering the United States or making use of the U.S. banking system. The Yakovlev law, by contrast, singles out Russian orphans. While the legislation targets prospective Americans hoping to adopt Russians, it hurts Russian children more than anyone else.

Before the Magnitsky legislation was enacted, Russian officials threatened to place U.S. officials and supporters of the legislation on a visa-ban list or to freeze their assets in Russia. Then, apparently realizing that few Americans keep assets in Russia or would regard a travel ban as punishment, they assembled a measure that adds another layer of human rights abuse by Russian officials.

The adoption law is part and parcel of Putin’s strategy for preserving power no matter the cost to the Russian population. During his first stint as president, Putin moved systematically to destroy the independence of every institution that might stand in the way of his control over Russian politics: media, political parties, the business sector, civil society. Since his formal return to Russia’s highest office in May, he has launched a similar drive to destroy his political opposition as well as perceived adversaries within civil society, pushing through measures that have broadened the definition of treason, increased penalties for protesting against the government, recriminalized defamation and imposed a new round of restrictions on civil-society organizations. His prosecutors are pressing spurious charges against opposition figures and critics and conducting armed raids on their homes.

Putin’s strategy also exploits anti-Americanism. Ever since Russians went into the streets in December 2011 to protest pervasive election fraud, Putin has blamed the United States for his and, by extension, Russia’s problems. He has accused America of provoking anti-Putin demonstrations and expelled the U.S. aid mission that, among other things, worked to bolster Russia’s decrepit public-health system. He has made it illegal for Russian nongovernmental organizations to receive U.S. funding if they are engaged in “political activities”; similarly, the Yakovlev law makes it illegal to serve as head of a Russian organization if one has dual ­Russian-American citizenship — a provision clearly targeting the 85-year-old head of the Moscow Helsinki Group, Lyudmila Alekseyeva.

Putin’s anti-Americanism has also led him to back Bashar al-Assad in his war against the Syrian people so as to deny the United States a global gain. Putin has spoken of the need for a new and uniquely Russian ideology, one that stands apart from, and explicitly rejects, the values of liberal democracy.

Given all this, it is heartening to see many Russians, including the foreign and education ministers, oppose this latest abuse of power. At the same time, the absence of a serious response from the world’s leading democracies is troubling.

The past seven months have seen the worst deterioration in Russia’s human rights situation since the collapse of the Soviet Union. The Putin regime demonizes the United States, heaps abuse on its officials, derides its democratic values and treats the humanitarian motives of its people as suspect, while backing the murderous Assad regime.

U.S. officials need to wake up to the challenge that Putin’s Russia poses. American couples deprived of the opportunity to adopt Russian children are not the only ones calling for the Obama administration to finally take a firm stand.