The Cold War has been over for decades, but its end never stopped the U.S. and Russia from engaging in a continuous public relations battle—with the stakes this week revolving around a new Russia trade bill passed by Congress that includes a controversial measure punishing Russians accused of human rights abuses.
While the human rights provision won’t have much affect on the trade measure, it is largely intended to embarrass Russia—even in its name, the Magnitsky Law, named after Sergei Magnitsky, the Russian lawyer who died in a Moscow prison in 2009 after exposing an alleged $230 million tax fraud by Russian police and officials.
An enraged Russia responded to the Congressional vote by accusing the U.S. of a”vindictive desire” to damage Russia’s world standing.
“Apparently, Washington has forgotten what year this is and still thinks the Cold War is going on,” the Russian foreign ministry said on Twitter. It said that the move would “adversely affect the prospects of bilateral cooperation” between the U.S. and Russia.
Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov said Russia would respond by introducing its own visa ban for U.S. human rights abuses—the perpetual tit-for-tat that has characterized the Russian-American relationship for many decades.
“At my meeting with Hillary Clinton in Dublin I confirmed that we will deny entry [to Russia] to Americans who are certainly involved in human rights violations,” he said after meeting the US Secretary of State and Lakhdar Brahimi, the UN and Arab League envoy to Syria, in Ireland on Thursday.
The human rights measure is part of an overall bill, approved by a Senate vote of 92 to 4, that normalizes trade with Russia after years of trade measures that included Cold War language now considered obsolete. The new bill was made necessary by Russia’s entry in August into the World Trade Organization. With the new bill, American businesses will try to take advantage of the rising Russian middle class, hoping to increase American exports above the $8.3 billion worth of goods sent to Russia last year out of a total of $1.5 trillion exported globally. Russia is the world’s ninth-largest economy.
Though President Obama is expected to sign the measure, he was actually opposed to the Magnitsky Law, believing it would unnecessarily anger Moscow. The president insisted he already was empowered to blacklist Russian human rights abusers by executive order. Since he is the one who is actually required to negotiate with Russia and President Vladimir Putin, Obama is bound to be more sensitive than a more distant Congress to Russia feeling slighted or insulted.
Obama last night welcomed the new trade agreement while ignoring the Magnitsky Law, which penalizes Russian human rights violators by withholding visas and freezing financial assets. Obama said in a statement that he hoped to “ensure that American businesses and workers are able to take full advantage.”
“This is really a tribute to Sergei Magnitsky. I was touched and awed that his story would have such a visceral impact on lawmakers in America,” said British investor William Browder, who had been lobbying Congress for years on behalf of his one-time lawyer Magnitsky.
But the Russian Foreign Ministry, in its usual colorful language, called the measure “a play in the Theater of the Absurd.”Congress was “just motivated by a vengeful desire to settle scores with Russia for its principled and consistent line in foreign affairs in favor of rigorously following international law,” the ministry said in a statement on its website.
The measure was proposed by Arizona Sen. John McCain, who said last night that he was “sending a signal to Vladimir Putin and the Russian plutocracy that these kinds of abuses of human rights will not be tolerated.”
But in one of its final tweets in last night’s Twitter onslaught, the Russian Foreign Ministry said, “It is perplexing and preposterous to hear human rights complaints from the US, where torture and kidnapping are legal in the 21st century.”