Russia has threatened the Obama administration that it will end cooperation on Iran and prevent the transfer of material to Afghanistan if Congress passes a law criticizing Russian human rights practices.
The White House argues that the U.S.-Russian "reset" of relations has had three positive results: the New START nuclear reductions treaty, Moscow's cooperation in sanctioning Iran, and approval (for a price) for U.S. military goods to transit Russian territory on the way to Afghanistan. But Russia is now using two of those three points as leverage to pressure the administration to get Congress not to pass a bill that would ban visas for Russian officials implicated in human rights crimes.
The legislation, called the Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act of 2011, is named after the anti-corruption lawyer who was tortured and died in a Russian prison in 2009. The bill targets his captors, as well as any other Russian officials "responsible for extrajudicial killings, torture, or other gross violations of human rights."
The administration admitted the Russian threats in its official comments on the bill, obtained by the The Cable.
"Senior Russian government officials have warned us that they will respond asymmetrically if legislation passes," the document stated. "Their argument is that we cannot expect them to be our partner in supporting sanctions against countries like Iran, North Korea, and Libya, and sanction them at the same time. Russian officials have said that other areas of bilateral cooperation, including on transit Afghanistan, could be jeopardized if this legislation passes."
"The Russian Duma has already proposed legislation that would institute similar travel bans and asset freezes for U.S. officials whose actions Russia deems in violations of the rights of Russian citizens arrested abroad and brought to the United States for trial," the administration said. "We have no way to judge the scope of these actions, but note that other U.S. national security interests will be affected by the passage of the S. 1039."
The Washington Post first reported the existence of the administration's comments today and led with the news that the State Department has quietly put Russian officials connected with the Magnitsky killing on a visa blacklist.
The blacklist appears to be a way for the administration to preempt further legislation. "Secretary Clinton has taken steps to ban individuals associated with the wrongful death of Sergey Magnitskiy from traveling to the United States. The Administration, therefore, does not see the need for this additional legislation," the administration said in its comments.
But in fact, the current bill no longer just includes officials connected to the Magnitsky case. The Senate version of the bill includes officials connected to a range of human rights cases in Russia, including the case of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, an imprisoned Russian dissident.
The main sponsor of the Senate bill, Sen. Ben Cardin (D-MD), said in an interview today with The Cable that he was now working to address the administration's concerns and he was not sure when the bill would see a committee markup or floor consideration.
"I'm working with the administration, working with the committee, and working with my fellow senators to determine how to proceed," he said. "Two things can change strategy: One is what happens in Russia, one is what happens in the State Department. Both are fluid at this point."
Meanwhile, the administration has another problem with the reset -- it must find a way to get Congress to repeal the 1974 "Jackson-Vanik" law, which was imposed to penalize the Soviet Union for its treatment of Jewish emigrants. That law stands in the way of designating Russia Permanent Normal Trade Relations (PNTR) status, which is part of Moscow's bid to join the WTO.
NSC Senior Director for Russia Mike McFaul, the administration's nominee for ambassador to Moscow, told The New Republic last month that he was open to the idea of some new law to pressure Russia on human rights as a replacement for Jackson-Vanik.
"Jackson-Vanik is an outdated mechanism," he said. "Let's have an updated mechanism that is more appropriate for 2011."
It's extremely doubtful that the GOP-led House would grant Russia PNTR status no matter what, meaning that the Magnitsky Act's value as a bargaining chip may be minimal. Either way, it's clear that the Obama administration places great value on maintaining the gains of the reset and doesn't want anything to get in the way.
"One of the core foreign policy objectives when we came into office was the Russia reset," Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes told reporters in May."It has been one of the most productive relationships for the United States."
President Obama delivered his second speech at the United Nations Thursday morning, giving a full-throated defense of his first 20 months in office and a sober assessment of the challenges that lie ahead.
He pled for the world to aggressively support the U.S.-led direct peace negotiations between the Israeli government and the Palestinian Authority. Specifically, he called on Arab nations to demonstrate their support through changes in policy that could help repair relations between Israel and its neighbors.
"Many in this hall count themselves as friends of the Palestinians. But these pledges must now be supported by deeds," Obama said. "Those who have signed on to the Arab Peace Initiative should seize this opportunity to make it real by taking tangible steps toward the normalization that it promises Israel. Those who speak out for Palestinian self-government should help the Palestinian Authority politically and financially, and - in so doing - help the Palestinians build the institutions of their state. And those who long to see an independent Palestine rise must stop trying to tear Israel down."
Obama also announced that he will add Indonesia, a country to which he has twice cancelled visits, to his Asia trip this November, which will also include stops in India, South Korea, and Japan. Obama meets with leaders from all 10 ASEAN member countries Friday.
Here are some key excerpts:
On the U.S. economy:
I have had no greater focus as President than rescuing our economy from potential catastrophe. And in an age when prosperity is shared, we could not do this alone. So America has joined with nations around the world to spur growth, and the renewed demand that could restart job creation. We are reforming our system of global finance, beginning with Wall Street reform at home, so that a crisis like this never happens again. And we made the G-20 the focal point for international coordination, because in a world where prosperity is more diffuse, we must broaden our circle of cooperation to include emerging economies.
There is much to show for our efforts, even as there is much more work to be done. The global economy has been pulled back from the brink of a depression, and is growing once more. We have resisted protectionism, and are exploring ways to expand trade and commerce among nations. But we cannot - and will not - rest until these seeds of progress grow into a broader prosperity, for all Americans, and for people around the globe.
On the war against Islamic extremists:
While drawing down in Iraq, we have refocused on defeating al Qaeda and denying its affiliates a safe-haven. In Afghanistan, the United States and our allies are pursuing a strategy to break the Taliban's momentum and build the capacity of Afghanistan's government and Security Forces, so that a transition to Afghan responsibility can begin next July. And from South Asia to the Horn of Africa, we are moving toward a more targeted approach- one that strengthens our partners, and dismantles terrorist networks without deploying large American armies.
As part of our efforts on non-proliferation, I offered the Islamic Republic of Iran an extended hand last year, and underscored that it has both rights and responsibilities as a member of the international community. I also said - in this hall - that Iran must be held accountable if it failed to meet those responsibilities. That is what we have done. Iran is the only party to the NPT that cannot demonstrate the peaceful intentions of its nuclear program, and those actions have consequences. Through UN Security Council Resolution 1929, we made it clear that international law is not an empty promise.
Now let me be clear once more: the United States and the international community seek a resolution to our differences with Iran, and the door remains open to diplomacy should Iran choose to walk through it. But the Iranian government must demonstrate a clear and credible commitment, and confirm to the world the peaceful intent of its nuclear program.
On the Middle East peace process:
Now, many are pessimistic about this process. The cynics say that Israelis and Palestinians are too distrustful of each other, and too divided internally, to forge lasting peace. Rejectionists on both sides will try to disrupt the process, with bitter words and with bombs. Some say that the gaps between the parties are too big; the potential for talks to break down is too great; and that after decades of failure, peace is simply not possible.
But consider the alternative. If an agreement is not reached, Palestinians will never know the pride and dignity that comes with their own state. Israelis will never know the certainty and security that comes with sovereign and stable neighbors who are committed to co-existence. The hard realities of demography will take hold. More blood will be shed. This Holy Land will remain a symbol of our differences, instead of our common humanity.
I refuse to accept that future. We all have a choice to make. And each of us must choose the path of peace. That responsibility begins with the parties themselves, who must answer the call of history.
On human rights and democracy:
In times of economic unease, there can also be an anxiety about human rights. Today, as in past times of economic downturn, some put human rights aside for the promise of short term stability, or the false notion that economic growth can come at the expense of freedom. We see leaders abolishing term limits, crackdowns on civil society, and corruption smothering entrepreneurship and good governance. We see democratic reforms deferred indefinitely.
As I said last year, each country will pursue a path rooted in the culture of its people. Yet experience shows us that history is on the side of liberty - that the strongest foundation for human progress lies in open economies, open societies, and open governments. To put it simply: democracy, more than any other form of government, delivers for our citizens. And that truth will only grow stronger in a world where the borders between nations are blurred.
It's time for every member state to open its elections to international monitors, and to increase the UN Democracy Fund. It's time to reinvigorate UN peacekeeping, so that missions have the resources necessary to succeed, and so atrocities like sexual violence are prevented and justice is enforced - because neither dignity nor democracy can thrive without basic security. And it's time to make this institution more accountable as well, because the challenges of a new century demand new ways of serving our common interests.
The world that America seeks is not one that we can build on our own. For human rights to reach those who suffer the boot of oppression, we need your voices to speak out. In particular, I appeal to those nations who emerged from tyranny and inspired the world in the second half of the last century - from South Africa to South Asia; from Eastern Europe to South America. Do not stand idly by when dissidents everywhere are imprisoned and protesters are beaten. Because part of the price of our own freedom is standing up for the freedom of others.
Eastern Europeans in embassies and communities around the capital region are upset today that Virginia's new D-Day memorial monument, unveiled in a ceremony this past week, contains a statue of the head of notorious Soviet leader Joseph Stalin.
Residents of Bedford, VA, were equally appalled when they found out about the statue, but now the fallout has now reached official Washington. The Cable has heard from multiple embassy officials today that they are getting calls from their local communities complaining about the statue. It's especially disconcerting to European diplomats, whose countries have spent decades scrubbing all traces of communist paraphernalia from their parks and public areas.
"I'm shocked as a European citizen and as a European diplomat," one embassy official said. "It's shocking because this person was responsible for the deaths of millions of people."
For what it's worth, the plaque underneath Stalin's likeness is hardly a tribute to the late communist ruler.
"In memory of the tens of millions who died under Stalin's rule and in tribute to all whose valor, fidelity, and sacrifice denied him and his successors victory in the cold war," it reads.
John Hudson reports on national security and foreign policy from the Pentagon to Foggy Bottom, the White House to Embassy Row, for The Cable.