April 17, 2013

ACCORDING TO the State Department, the government of the Russian republic of Chechnya under Ramzan Kadyrov “has committed and continues to commit such serious human rights violations and abuses as extrajudicial killing, torture, disappearances and rape.” Mr. Kadyrov, State added in an August 2011 letter, “has been implicated personally” in “the killing of U.S. citizen Anna Politkovskaya, a journalist who had reported widely on human rights abuses in Chechnya.”

Yet when the Obama administration released on Friday a list of Russian officials who are to be subject to a visa ban and an asset freeze because of their complicity in human rights crimes, Mr. Kadyrov was not on it. The list of names — mandated by Congress in legislation that the administration strongly resisted — is a step toward holding the regime of Vladi­mir Putin accountable for its abuses, but it also is another example of President Obama’s questionable catering to the Kremlin.

Sixteen of the 18 names on the sanctions list are connected to Sergei Magnitsky, a whistleblowing Russian lawyer who died after being imprisoned and abused; it was his case that prompted Congress to pass the law last year. Under its provisions, the administration is required to identify Russian officials complicit in the persecution of Mr. Magnitsky, as well as in other human rights crimes, and publicly sanction them.

Some advocates of the law wondered why the list was so short; some 60 Russian officials have been connected to Mr. Magnitsky’s case alone, not to mention other notorious cases such as that of Ms. Politkovskaya, who was gunned down on Mr. Putin’s birthday in 2006. There are some good reasons: An asset freeze by the Treasury Department, which can be subject to legal challenge, has to meet a relatively high standard of evidence.

Administration officials concede, however, that some names were left off the list for political reasons. One is Mr. Kadyrov, who reportedly is included in a classified annex of officials who are to be denied visas but not be subject to an asset freeze. We were told that the administration did not want to target senior officeholders, out of concern that Russian reciprocation would ban members of Congress, Cabinet members or state governors (the equivalent of Mr. Kadyrov) from visiting Russia, further complicating U.S.-Russian relations at a time when Mr. Obama is still seeking to strike deals with Mr. Putin. As it is, the Kremlin issued a sanctions list over the weekend that included several officials of the George W. Bush administration.

The concern about Russian retaliation, however, strikes us as exaggerated. Governors such as Rick Perry of Texas, mentioned as a possible candidate for the Russian list, might welcome the honor of being banned by Mr. Putin. As for cooperation, Mr. Putin, who has been on a nationalist and anti-American tear since returning to the presidency last year, has made it clear that he is uninterested in cooperating with Mr. Obama on Syria, the crisis where Moscow’s aid is most urgently needed.

Mr. Obama has consistently prioritized good relations with Mr. Putin over support for Russians seeking democracy and human rights. That trade-off has yielded little in tangible benefits for the United States, and as Russian resistance to Mr. Putin’s autocracy steadily grows, it looks increasingly short-sighted.