The Cable

Will the Magnitsky list spoil Donilon’s Russia trip?

The Obama administration released a list of Russian human rights violators Friday, further complicating the U.S.-Russia relationship just as Obama's top foreign-policy advisor is about to visit Moscow.

The State Department heavily resisted the Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act of 2012 when it was going through Congress last year, but lost the argument, and was forced to compile and then release the list of Russian officials now subject to visa bans and asset freezes by an April 13 deadline. The list includes 18 names, including16 officials directly related to the case of Magnitsky, the anti-corruption lawyer who died in prison after allegedly being tortured, but doesn't include most of the 240 names submitted to the State Department or any top Russian officials close to President Vladimir Putin.

National Security Advisor Tom Donilon will be in Moscow April 14 and 15. According to reports, he is there primarily to entice Moscow to enter discussions over missile-defense cooperation, following the Obama administration's decision to cancel development of a new missile, known as the SM-IIB, that Russia has said could threaten its own ICBM capabilities.

Congressional reaction to the Magnitsky list has been mixed, with some key sponsors of the legislation critical of the administration for creating a small list and others holding out hope that the list will be expanded in the near future.

"I am deeply disappointed by the Obama Administration's announcement today that only 18 individuals have been added to the human rights sanctions list required by the Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act," Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), an original sponsor, said in a statement. "At a time when citizens and civil society groups are being denied justice across Russia, the United States has a responsibility to show our Russian friends and partners that there can still be accountability and consequences when basic human rights are violated. That's why robust implementation of the Magnitsky Act is so critical and why today's announcement is so damaging."

McCain said that Congress will begin work on additional legislation to compel the Obama administration to implement the law more forcefully and said that even a separate, classified list created by the State Department of officials who are subject only to visa bans is also inadequate.

Rep. Jim McGovern (D-MA), another key sponsor of the law, said in his own statement Thursday that he was assured the list was only a first draft.

"While the list is timid and features more significant omissions than names, I was assured by Administration officials today that the investigation is ongoing, and further additions will be made to the list as new evidence comes to light," he said. "The fact that a name is not on the list does not mean that person is innocent."

William Browder, the CEO of Hermitage Capital who employed Magnitsky, told The Cable in an interview that the fact that the list exists, even in an incomplete form, represents a victory for those who want to stand up to Russian human rights practices.

"This is an historic moment in the fight against impunity and human rights atrocities by having the U.S. government come up with the new policy of banning visas and freezing assets of violators in countries that are not considered enemies of the U.S. It means that you can still conduct diplomacy and condemn atrocities at the same time," he said. "The list is a good start but there are a lot more evidence available of other people that should be processed and those people should be added in the future. There are also a number of other gross human rights abuses in Russia unrelated to Magnitsky that need to be captured as this list gets formulated in the future."

A senior State Department official briefing reporters Friday defended the size of the Magnitsky list and said that asset freezes needed to meet a high standard determined by the Treasury Department, requiring a smaller list initially.

"Putting a name on this list is a serious undertaking. You better know what you are doing and why and you better have a demonstrable reason for doing so," the official said. "We have implemented this law in a fair spirit and diligently."

Critics accused the administration of minimizing the list in order to soften the expected retaliatory moves from Moscow, which have already included a Russian ban on American adoptions of Russian babies, the refusal of visas for U.S. congressmen, and a crackdown on international NGOs.

"Political considerations were not a factor," the State Department official said.

Nevertheless, the timing could not be worse for a White House intent on coaxing the Russians into negotiations over linking their anti-missile batteries to the ever-expanding U.S.-NATO missile defense shield in Eastern Europe. The missile-defense talks are only one item on Donilon's agenda. He is also seeking Russian cooperation on further reductions of nuclear weapons and Russian help in solving the crisis in Syria.

Even before the Magnitsky list was released, the Russians said publicly they were still opposed to U.S. missile-defense plans in Eastern Europe, despite the Obama administration's cancellation of the SM-IIB missile.

"All aspects of strategic uncertainty related to the creation of a U.S. and NATO missile defense system remain. Therefore, our objections also remain," Deputy Foreign Minister Segei Ryabkov said in March.

Experts now see Russian retaliation and intransigence increasing and the prospects of Donilon bringing home some agreement from Moscow on missile defense dwindling.

"Mr. Donilon will get an earful on a whole lot of things that stem from the Magnitsky issue. It will be another reason why Mr. Putin will continue to do the things he's doing," said Thomas Moore, senior fellow and deputy director of the CSIS proliferation prevention program. "The Russian position has not changed; they are opposed to any missile defenses existing or planned. I think this visit is a waste of Donilon's time in a lot of ways but I guess there's always a need to try."

The National Security Staff declined requests for comment on Donilon's trip.

Be sure to read FP's Elias Groll's run down of the 18 Russian officials on the Magnitsky list.

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The Cable

As senator, Kerry called for direct talks with North Korea

Secretary of State John Kerry isn't calling for direct talks with North Korea today, but that's what he advocated when he was chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Standing beside South Korean Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se in Seoul Friday, Kerry emphasized the resoluteness of the United States and its East Asian allies in refusing to accept North Korea's status as a nuclear-weapons state and urged the North Korean leadership to step back from its increasingly provocative and bellicose rhetoric. Kerry also said that if North Korea were to change its attitude, the United States and its allies would welcome a diplomatic path to peace.

"The rhetoric that we're hearing from North Korea is simply unacceptable by any standard, and I am here to make it clear today, on behalf of President Obama and the citizens of the United States and our bilateral security agreement, that the United States will, if needed, defend our allies and defend ourselves," Kerry said Friday. "We want to emphasize that the real goal should not be reinforcing the fact that we will defend our allies, which we will, but it should be emphasizing for everybody the possibilities of peace, the possibilities of reunification, the possibilities of a very different future for the people of the Republic of Korea and ultimately for the DPRK."

In 2011, during a previous round of North Korean brinksmanship, Kerry was sitting in a different chair as head of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, charged with overseeing the Obama administration's North Korea policy. In that role, he called for an end to the status-quo policy of "strategic patience," which amounts to waiting for Pyongyang to change its behavior, and advocated direct U.S.-North Korea bilateral talks

"Let me be clear: We must get beyond the political talking point that engaging North Korea is somehow ‘rewarding bad behavior.' It is not. We will set the time and place and we will negotiate in good faith. Talks will be based on our national security interests and those of our allies," Kerry said at the opening of a March 1, 2011, hearing that featured testimony by then Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Kurt Campbell and then Special Representative for North Korea Stephen Bosworth. "We don't know what renewed diplomatic engagement can accomplish. We do know this: Our silence invites a dangerous situation to get worse."."

There are no good options when dealing with North Korea, but that doesn't mean the U.S. government should use that as an excuse to do nothing or very little, Kerry argued. In fact, he said, not talking to North Korea contributed to its "dangerous and destabilizing conduct." He said the United States needed to "seize the initiative" and propose direct talks immediately.

"The risks of maintaining the status quo are grave. North Korea would likely build more nuclear weapons and missiles. It may well export nuclear technology or even fissile material. And the next violation of the armistice could escalate into wider hostilities that threaten U.S. allies and interests," he said. "Given these very real risks, the best option is to consult closely with South Korea and launch bilateral talks with North Korea when we decide the time is appropriate. Fruitful talks between the U.S. and North Korea can lay the groundwork for resumption of the Six Party Talks. Right now, we simply cannot afford to cede the initiative to North Korea and China because neither country's interests fully coincide with ours."

At the time, North Korea had recently sunk a South Korea vessel, killing 46 South Korean sailors, and shelled a South Korean island near disputed waters. Kerry said the current policy wasn't working.

"Last year was the most dangerous on the Korean Peninsula since the end of the Korean War in 1953. We must do everything within our power to avoid further deterioration and put the peninsula back on a path to peace and stability," he said. "So far, international initiatives have not stabilized the situation, much less brought about a change of course in the North."

The Obama administration did engage North Korea in a series of meetings in 2011 and 2012, eventually working out a deal that would have sent North Korea hundreds of thousands of pounds of food in conjunction with North Korean promises related to its missile and nuclear programs. That deal fell apart when North Korean leader Kim Jong Il died the day before the deal was to be announced.

Little is known about the motivations of the new North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, and there have been some meetings between U.S. and North Korean diplomats, mostly in New York, but those meetings are largely perfunctory and are used to communicate existing positions. The State Department is reticent even to acknowledge the existence of its rare instances of engagement with Pyongyang

"We need to find a way to break North Korea's cycle of provocation and nuclear expansion. We need to find the right American policy, in concert with South Korea and Japan, to persuade the North to abandon its reckless behavior," Kerry said.

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