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Reassessing the U.S.-Russia 'Reset'

Interviewee: Stephen Sestanovich, George F. Kennan Senior Fellow for Russian and Eurasian Studies
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor
December 13, 2012

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The passage and expected signing by President Obama of a new trade bill known as the Magnitsky Law, which is sharply critical of Russia's human rights record, has spurred a "ferocious" reaction in Moscow, says CFR's Stephen Sestanovich. This is coming on the heels of continuing disagreement on how to best handle the civil war in Syria, as well as a host of other problems. "The mood is a little more downbeat among people involved in Russian-American relations on both sides," says Sestanovich. But ultimately, "the issue of Russian-American relations is much less important to Putin than finding the right formula for his next presidential term," he says.

U.S.-Russian relations seem to be caught up again in another dispute over U.S. legislation. The U.S. government has been looking to cancel the Jackson-Vanik amendment for years, and Congress has now done so, but it linked the cancellation to a new restriction called the Magnitsky Law. The Russians have responded by threatening retaliation. What's all this about? Is this really a serious matter?

It's a serious matter in this sense: Congress was unwilling to graduate Russia from the Jackson-Vanik Amendment and grant permanent normal trade relations without reaffirming its interests in human rights in Russia. When it became clear that Russia was going to complete its succession to the World Trade Organization and that Jackson-Vanik would have to be repealed for the United States to gain the trade advantages of Russia's WTO membership, Congress had to find a way of reaffirming that interest. The vehicle that they chose was the so-called Magnitsky Bill, which provided that anyone associated with the death of Sergei Magnitsky, a Russian lawyer who was beaten to death in a Moscow jail for uncovering fraud by Russian authorities, would be barred from the United States and would have his or her assets in U.S. financial institutions frozen. In addition, the law provides that others guilty of gross violations of human rights would be treated in the same way (i.e., no visa and frozen assets).

Has President Obama signed this bill yet? And what is the Russian reaction?

The president is going to sign it. The administration supported it because the measure was linked to graduation from Jackson-Vanik. The administration realized it couldn't get a resolution on the trade issue without accepting this gesture on the human rights front. Its decision was to accept the package and work on implementation.

The Russian response has been ferocious. The Russian media have explained how the Russian government will create a mirror image list to penalize American violators of human rights. They've talked about people who have been involved in the prosecution of Viktor Bout, the arms trader, or adoptive parents who mistreated Russian children, or people who were guilty of misdeeds at Guantanamo or Abu Ghraib. One Russian newspaper has actually said that Senator Ben Cardin (D-MD) himself might be put on the list. (Senator Cardin was one of the originators of the Magnitsky Bill.) Russian government officials have said that there will be the same number of names on their list as the administration puts on the U.S. list. They've said if the Americans make it public, they'll make it public. So they're very much in a tit-for-tat mode here, waiting to see how the administration implements the bill.

Some Russian officials are clearly wary of this getting out of hand. I have heard Russians say that really the best thing here would be to ignore the entire episode. Last week, Igor Shuvalov, the deputy prime minister who has handled trade issues, said in New York at the Stock Exchange that whatever Russian retaliation there is will not affect businesses; it will only be directed at U.S. officials. They're trying to keep trade separate from the broader ideological confrontation.

At the same time as the Magnitsky Act reared its head, the United States has been holding inconclusive discussions with Russia on the Syrian crisis. Apparently, the Russians are still digging in on not wanting to oust Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. And Lavrov criticized the United States for deciding to recognize the new opposition group of Syrians. What is your reading of this?

The Russians have emphasized, more vocally of late, that they have no special affection for Assad. Their concerns are twofold: They don't like the idea that the international community can just give leaders of national governments their walking papers, and they don't like the uncertainty that will take hold in Syria if Assad goes. They have other concerns perhaps, but those are the ones that they emphasize. That has been, until now, an empty position in the sense that the Russians have not brought much to the table in the way of ideas on how to solve the crisis in Syria. In the past week or so, there have been some signals that that might be changing, perhaps as they become more pessimistic about Assad's prospects. There have been more meetings between Russian and American officials on trying to map a way forward, and more public suggestions that they're open to some formula that provides for Assad's departure. But they're still not eager to approach this in a proactive way. There are some limits on their influence, but there are also real hesitations about this kind of enterprise.

Does this go back in a way to President Vladimir Putin's unhappiness with Dmitri Medvedev, who was then president, in not vetoing UNSC Resolution 1973, which led to the NATO campaign in Libya?

The Russians' claim, in retrospect, is that they were not fully aware of how active the NATO effort in Libya was going to be. But that's a debatable proposition. Anybody who read the newspapers could see what was going to happen in Libya. Russian officials I talked to at the time and afterwards seemed fully informed. In retrospect, I think they're a little unhappy with the result and don't want a repetition of that in Syria, which is, in any case, a much more important country for them.

Just looking back a bit, it will be four years ago next February when Vice President Biden made his famous "reset" relations speech in Munich. How are relations now overall?

There are many disagreements. Secretary Clinton highlighted those in a speech recently, where she was commenting on the state of relations with Russia. She didn't emphasize, as officials normally do, all the great areas of cooperation that go along with the list of disagreements. So the mood is a little more downbeat among people involved in Russian-American relations on both sides. In addition to the flap over human rights and trade, there is this now long-standing disagreement about Syria, which has involved some rather vituperative and personal comments on both sides. Perhaps the most intractable issue of all is missile defense. The Russians insist that U.S. plans to develop a missile defense system to protect the United States and Europe is a threat to the credibility of the Russian nuclear deterrent, and that issue shows no real signs of progress. The Russian military in particular is very dug-in about it.

So the reset has accomplished much of what it was supposed to do: bringing the two sides back from a period of intense suspicion and building up some elements of cooperation, particularly on Afghanistan and also on sanctions on Iran and a new START treaty. But the list of issues that the two sides hoped would be manageable has turned out to be harder to resolve.

Since Putin was reelected earlier this year, he's faced big demonstrations in Moscow and elsewhere protesting his election. He even blamed the United States for inspiring the protests at one point, right?

Putin said Secretary Clinton was responsible for giving the demonstrators the signal to go out and protest. The issue of Russian-American relations is much less important to Putin than finding the right formula for his next presidential term. He has used anti-American rhetoric off and on as a way of defining his and Russia's place in the world, but that can't really be the whole of his program for his next term.

He's beginning to put other pieces of that program in place to find a way to revise his legitimacy as a national leader. Most speculation focuses on the theme of corruption. Putin wants to make corruption a new element of his tough guy style, cracking down on bureaucrats who cheat the people. There had been a lot of TV coverage of raids on corrupt bureaucrats showing the loot that investigators come up with, gold and jewels and the like. There are risks for him in this, and many Russian commentators have said that there's a kind of breach in the implicit contract that he struck with the bureaucracy--the contract being that they could all get rich together and abuse their power with impunity. We don't yet know what's going to come of this campaign, but there's no doubt that at least at a rhetorical level, Putin is making it a more prominent part of his program.

President Putin gave a State of the Nation address on Wednesday, in which he warned against foreign influence in Russian affairs. He did not mention the United States in particular, so does this speech tell us anything more about Putin's attitude to the United States?

What the speech did was define Putin's political profile for his third term as president, and it picked up on a number of the themes that he has been developing since his campaign for reelection. Putin is presenting himself as a kind of modern Russian nationalist. He wants to restore Russian spiritual values. He resists outside interference in Russian affairs and the imposition of external standards of democracy by which Russia's own system would be judged. Russian officials have spoken of the Magnitsky Act as an example of that kind of interference.

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