LAST MONTH the Obama administration disclosed it had taken a significant step toward balancing its policy toward Russia, which has focused heavily on striking deals with the authoritarian regime of Vladimir Putin and Dmitry Medvedev while mostly ignoring issues of corruption and human rights. In a letter to Congress, the State Department disclosed that several dozen Russian officials implicated in a notorious corruption case that led to the persecution and death of a Russian lawyer had been banned from traveling to the United States.
That the administration was right to act — and that measures such as visa bans matter to foreign elites — has been seen in Russia’s reaction. At first, Russian spokesmen issued vague, empty threats of retaliation. Then authorities announced that two prison doctors implicated in the death of the lawyer, Sergei Magnitsky, would be prosecuted. Finally, government prosecutors said last week that they had reopened the case brought against Mr. Magnitsky that led to his imprisonment, mistreatment and death in 2009.
Most likely, the new investigation represents another cynical maneuver by the Russian Interior Ministry, which has managed to protect the police officials responsible for Mr. Magnitsky’s death for two years despite public promises of justice by Mr. Medvedev. The scale of the crimes and the blatancy of the coverup are deeply revealing of the nature of the Russian regime. Mr. Magnitsky was targeted after he disclosed that a group of tax and police officials had embezzled $230 million in government funds. The same officials who stole the money charged him with the embezzlement, imprisoned him in increasingly harsh conditions and denied him medical treatment.
As it happens, Mr. Magnitsky’s employers were an American law firm and a London-based investor; they have since posted voluminous evidence on the Internet showing how police and tax officials channeled tens of millions of dollars into foreign real estate and bank accounts following the embezzlement. A special human rights council reported to Mr. Medvedev last month that the case had been mishandled and singled out a senior police official it said was responsible. Yet the Interior Ministry continues to maintain that there was no wrongdoing — and Mr. Medvedev appears powerless to act against the corrupt cabal.
Pressure from the United States and the European Union — which is also considering sanctions in the Magnitsky case — could help those in Russia who want to combat the culture of criminality that has spread throughout government in the Putin era. But the Obama administration’s action was reluctant; it moved under pressure from Congress, where pending legislation would require a freeze on assets as well as a ban on visas for officials involved in the Magnitsky case and other major human rights cases. The State Department’s letter disclosing the travel ban urged Congress to drop the bill, arguing it could cause Moscow to cease cooperating on sanctions against Iran or in transporting materiel to Afghanistan.
Accepting that argument would mean agreeing with the proposition that the “reset” of relations with Russia means that officials guilty of crimes such as theft, torture and murder must be allowed to travel to the United States and deposit stolen funds here. In fact, the Kremlin will act according to its perceived interests in Iran and Afghanistan, regardless of such decisions. Russia will never be a reliable U.S. partner until cases such as that of Sergei Magnitsky are subject to the rule of law.