The Cable

Forget Ukraine: Washington's Now Targeting Russians Tied to a Dead Lawyer

The Obama administration added more Russian names to a U.S. blacklist Tuesday, risking a further deterioration in Washington's already troubled relationship with Moscow. The trigger wasn't the high-profile standoff over the future of eastern Ukraine, however. This time around the hard-hitting measures came in response to the mysterious 2009 death of a Russian lawyer-turned-whistleblower.

The U.S. added 12 people -- including doctors, prison officials and a judge -- to a list of Russian human rights abusers for their alleged roles in the deaths of Sergei Magnitsky and two other Kremlin critics. Magnitsky, the highest profile victim, was arrested after trying to bring to light a wide-ranging tax fraud and died in prison after authorities allegedly denied him urgently needed medical care. The new U.S. move -- which freezes the assets and denies visas to virtually everyone involved in Magnitsky's arrest, trial and medical treatment -- came in response to lobbying by powerful lawmakers who see the case as part of a broader pattern of abuse in Vladimir Putin's Russia.

Washington took the move despite what appears to be a concerted attempt by the Putin government to prevent tensions with the West from rising further in the wake of Moscow's annexation of Crimea and its dispatch of tens of thousands of troops to its border with eastern Ukraine. Putin has struck a more conciliatory tone recently in advance of a two-day trip to China designed to try to seal a massive gas deal with Beijing. The Russian strongman has promised to withdraw his forces from the frontier with Ukraine and praised the pro-Western government in Kiev -- which he normally derides as a illegitimate junta -- for launching what he implied was a serious dialogue with the pro-Russian forces who have taken over swaths of eastern Ukraine.

It's not clear if those were just words, however. This is at least the third time Putin has promised to withdraw his forces from the Ukrainian border, but Pentagon officials and NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said there's been no sign yet of a withdrawal.

Washington has tried to force Putin's hand by freezing the assets of 45 people, including some of the Russian president's closest allies, and 19 banks and companies since March in an attempt to pressure Putin to reverse his annexation of Crimea and abandon his threats of invading eastern Ukraine. The Treasury Department insisted that Tuesday's measures, by contrast, weren't prompted by anything Putin did or didn't do in Ukraine.

"Our action today is independent of Russia's actions in Ukraine," a spokeswoman for Treasury's Office of Foreign Assets Control said in an email, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Instead, the Obama administration was responding to a congressional request made under a 2012 law the administration originally fought. The Magnitsky Act gave Congress the right to request sanctions against Russians accused of human rights abuses. The State Department, Treasury Department, and President Obama's National Security Council all originally opposed the idea, but came around to it after prominent senators made it clear they wouldn't vote to normalize trade relations with Russia unless the provision was attached.

"We appreciate the strong interest in Congress in this case and human rights in Russia, and will continue to coordinate with Congress on these issues," the Treasury spokeswoman said.

The new measures target doctors, investigators and a judge that worked on Magnitsky's case, as well as four people who were allegedly involved in the $230 million tax fraud he exposed. Dr. Larisa Litvinova, for instance, head of the Butyrka Detention Center Hospital was added to the list for withholding "appropriate medical care for Magnitsky while he was being held at the pre-trial detention center," according to Treasury.  The administration previously added 18 names, mostly mid-level officials, to the Magnitsky list in April 2013.

Treasury also blacklisted two people allegedly responsible for the deaths of two other Kremlin critics, American journalist Paul Klebnikov and Chechen rebel fighter Umar Israilov.

American hedge fund manager Bill Browder, who helped push the Magnitsky Act into law after the Russian lawyer was arrested and died in a Moscow prison, said Tuesday's list proves that the law can be used to punish Russians involved in new human rights abuses, not just those involved in the Magnitsky case.

"The hope is that imposing visa sanctions and asset freezes on human rights abusers can happen whether there's a good relationship or a bad relationship, diplomatically, with a country," said Browder.

ANDREY SMIRNOV/ AFP/ GETTY IMAGES

The Cable

Exclusive: Powerful Pro-Israel Lawmaker Suddenly Pulls Pro-Israel Bill

Facing a difficult vote that would have forced Democrats to choose sides between the White House and members of the pro-Israel community, Senator Bob Menendez, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, removed a key piece of pro-Israel legislation from the committee's agenda, according to congressional aides familiar with the matter.

The bill, the U.S.-Israel Strategic Partnership Act, would expand cooperation between the two nations in a number of areas, including defense, intelligence, energy, and homeland security. The legislation enjoys broad bipartisan support and would have likely passed the foreign relations committee. But Menendez surprised Republicans by calling off a vote on the bill after it became clear that the committee's ranking member, Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), planned to introduce an amendment related to the Obama administration's nuclear talks with Iran that would have forced Democrats to make a politically difficult choice in the run up to this year's midterm elections.

Should President Obama reach a deal with Iran and five other world powers to restrain the country's nuclear program, the Corker measure would have forced the president to submit the full plan to Congress within three days. The amendment would then give Congress the right to hold a "vote of disapproval" on the final deal and make way for hearings on the matter. Notably, the legislation would not give Congress the power to block the deal, only to express its will on the issue. 

Such a vote would have likely divided Democrats torn between standing behind the White House's hard-fought diplomatic efforts and members of the pro-Israel community, many of whom are deeply skeptical of an Iran deal.

In a statement Monday evening, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the powerful pro-Israel lobbying organization, gave support to Corker's amendment. "AIPAC supports provisions such as the Corker Amendment which underscore the key role that Congress must play in defining the terms of an acceptable deal and its implementation," an AIPAC official said.

A spokesman for Menendez declined to comment. One Senate aide, speaking against the new measure, said Corker's amendment didn't belong in a bill pertaining to the U.S.-Israel partnership. "It is deeply disappointing that a bipartisan bill cosponsored by over 60 senators sending a strong message extending far beyond the United States ... is being politicized when it should be passed," said the aide. "This is the right bill for the right time as the United States and Israel continue to make advances in technology, homeland security, agriculture, and other areas. It is not the appropriate vehicle to legislate on Iran." He also expressed frustration that the amendment was introduced just days before the markup of the bill, which had been in the works for more than a year. 

Many in the pro-Israel community have argued that the Iran nuclear issue is part and parcel of any pro-Israel legislation given the perception that the nuclear program is an existential threat to the Jewish state. However, the amendment has also been viewed by some as a political tool aimed at driving a wedge between pro-Israel Democrats. AIPAC has traditionally avoided legislation aimed at politicizing the Israel issue in favor of support for bipartisan legislation.

When asked directly about the Corker amendment, a senior U.S. administration official declined to oppose or support it.  "Preventing Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon has been a top priority for the administration, toward which we have worked diligently with Congress and our international partners," said the official. "The administration is fully committed to continuing to brief and consult closely with Congress so that the United States government speaks with one voice and does not undermine our negotiators' efforts to achieve a strong deal that will protect our interests and those of our partners and the international community." The official sent a follow up e-mail saying the administration does officially oppose the Corker amendment.

This post has been updated.