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."