Last week, an official British inquiry concluded that the 2006 murder of the exiled Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko by polonium poisoning was ordered by the head of the FSB, “probably” with the approval of President Vladimir Putin. Despite the dramatic accusation, the report, by Sir Robert Owen, added little to what was already known—that a state sponsored assassination was carried out on British soil, exposing hundreds of others to nuclear contamination.
Justice for the perpetrators of crimes against Putin’s critics, as well as other abuses, must wait for a democratic Russia. Until then, other states have the obligation to enforce in other ways the values they profess, and which define the international institutions to which they and Russia belong.
Great Britain will not lead that effort. It will, as its response to the Owen report showed, carry on much as usual, going only so far as to freeze the financial assets of the “trigger men,” assuming they have any in the UK, and warn allies to beware of similar actions on their soil. From Davos, Prime Minister Cameron said he would continue to work with Russia on Syria, even though Moscow is protecting the mass-murdering Assad regime and attacking its opponents, and in so doing fomenting the growth of ISIS and the refugee crisis in Europe.
As for the U.S., immediately following the Owen report on Litvinenko, Secretary of State John Kerry began talking about lifting Ukraine sanctions. It is as though the Administration’s strategy of cooperation on discrete issues needs continually to be reinforced with evidence of Putin’s outrageous behavior in other areas that it can then ignore. Indeed, President Obama’s desire for cooperation has moved Washington closer to Putin’s position, not the other way around. The U.S. has acquiesced to Assad staying in power. Barring a complete change in course, the Obama Administration will continue to pursue illusive cooperation with Putin on Ukraine and Syria at the expense of democracy and human rights.
Putin does not make distinctions of this kind. His foreign aggression is the outgrowth of domestic matters, especially his desire to distract his citizens from the economy with military adventure and imagined foreign enemies. This in turn enables a resort to “patriotism,” calculated to bolster his political position by casting his critics as traitors.
Russia’s citizens, especially those brave enough to pursue democracy and human rights, pay the price. Throughout 2015, civil society and human rights organizations faced mounting legal harassment and intimidation. An independent television station was raided. The Kremlin kept pro-democracy politicians off the ballot in regional elections through the invalidation of signatures. The same tactic was used in the Moscow Duma elections of 2014 and likely will be again in national parliamentary elections scheduled for September. In an impressively malevolent move calculated to remind Russians of the perils of opposition, prosecutors detained Ivan Nepomnyashchikh in February 2015, three years after the May 6, 2012 protest, and later sentenced him to two and a half years in a penal colony.
Of course, the most chilling event of 2015 was the murder of Boris Nemtsov on February 27. Nemtsov, a former deputy prime minister and co-chairman of Parnas, the leading democratic opposition party, was shot within steps of the Kremlin on the eve of a planned march against war in Ukraine and for democracy in Russia. Although no state responsibility has been established, Nemtsov’s colleagues, Mikhail Kasyanov, a former prime minister, and Vladimir Kara-Murza argue that state propagandists who relentlessly smeared Nemtsov as a “traitor” engaged in “swallowing, strangling and dismembering Russia” deserve censure by the United States. About a month after visiting Washington to make this case last April, Kara-Murza himself came close to death from an unexplained illness with symptoms of poisoning.
Despite all of this, throughout 2015, the Obama Administration did not impose the asset freezes and visa bans for gross human rights abuses called for by the Magnitsky Act. Perhaps sanctions are imminent, slowed by bureaucratic haggling and the holidays. More likely the process has been sidelined as the Administration continues to imagine breakthroughs in one meeting after another with top Russian officials. In any case, the damage has been done. A signal has been sent to both Putin and to Russia’s democracy movement: the U.S. did nothing, not even enforce its own law.
The Obama Administration is hardly the first to resist obligations to levy pressure on dictatorships over human rights. Even at the height of the Cold War, implementation of the Jackson-Vanik Amendment, which used trade leverage to force the Soviets to allow emigration, mainly of Jews, needed the help of its namesake, Senator Henry M. “Scoop” Jackson. “Every year Scoop would sit down with various East European ambassadors and negotiate freedom for people whose names had become known to us,” a former Jackson staffer told an audience at the Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars in 2011. Jackson “invariably came back with promises of visas for everyone on the list, in some cases hundreds of people. Only when those promises were fulfilled would a waiver be granted.”
It’s important to remember that the idea behind the Magnitsky Act was well received among ordinary Russians. The targeted penalties on abusive, corrupt Russians replaced the Jackson-Vanik trade pressure with something relevant to life in Putin’s Russia. When Congress adopted the Magnitsky Act it ensured that human rights would continue to be one of America’s priorities in Russia policy. Unless Congress gets more involved, its members, like the President, will be perceived as insincere and weak when it comes to democracy and human rights in Russia.