On Wednesday night, Canada’s lower house of Parliament voted unanimously to approve its own version of the Magnitsky Act, the 2012 U.S. law sanctioning Russian officials involved in human rights abuses. That law has become a famously radioactive issue in U.S.-Russian relations, first triggering a retaliatory ban on American adoptions of Russian children, and recently figuring into the Trump-Russia drama after the news broke that Donald Trump Jr. had met with Natalia Veselnitskaya, a Russian lawyer who has been lobbying to overturn the measure.
The Veselnitskaya affair is only the most famous example of Russia’s concerted campaign to repeal or undermine the Magnistky Act. As our own Karina Orlova extensively documented, the Russians also screened a defamatory propaganda film on Capitol Hill to cast doubt on the law, have sought to smear and undermine its architect Bill Browder, and have openly courted the Putin-friendly Congressman Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) to assist in those efforts.
Sure enough, the Canadian version was also the subject of a vigorous lobbying campaign. As the New York Times reports, Canadian politicians began to hear an outcry from a nonprofit called the Russian Congress of Canada in the weeks leading up to the vote:
John McKay, a Liberal member of Parliament, dismissed the group as a front for the Russian Embassy in Ottawa and cited its lobbying activities in his concerns over interference by the Russian government in Canadian affairs. “We are concerned about the business of fake news and misinformation,” he said.
He said his suspicions of coordination between the Russian government and the group deepened after a speech he gave on the issue in Parliament on Monday, when he received an email from the Russian Embassy spokesman, Kirill Kalanin, that included articles making similar pro-Russian arguments mentioned in a letter from the group.
“Their tactics are so amateurish they’re not even subtle,” Mr. McKay said. “It’s so stupid that the dullest among us can see through that.”
The president of the group in question, a former software engineer named Igor Babalich, completely denies any official connection with the Russian government. But as the Times rightly notes, the organization reliably reinforces Kremlin narratives in a manner that draws suspicion:
In addition to organizing rallies and parades in Canada celebrating the anniversary of Germany’s surrender to the Soviet Union in World War II, the group has written scores of letters to Canadian politicians and articles that lobbied against Canada’s involvement in NATO; condemned Ottawa’s criticism of the Russian invasion of Ukraine; and questioned the integrity of [Foreign Minister] Freeland by citing claims that her Ukrainian grandfather was a Nazi collaborator.
The NYT story is worth reading for a glimpse of how today’s Russia lobby works. It is, in many ways, a troubling story, one that reinforces the need for vigilance to guard against disinformation and shows how Moscow is trying to co-opt foreign diasporas to advance its political agenda in the West.
At the same time, though, the story suggests another truth: the Russia lobby is not particularly effective at advancing that agenda. The Canadian Magnitsky Act, after all, passed Parliament without a single dissenting vote, despite the furious entreaties of the Russian Embassy and astroturfed supporting groups. Nor has the Russian lobby figured out how to effectively exploit tensions within Canadian society to sow useful divisions. The Russian Congress of Canada’s public output reveals a fixation on the Magnitsky Act, the suppression of ethnic minorities in Ukraine, and Chrystia Freeland’s Ukrainian heritage. These are hardly concerns that resonate beyond the narrow enclaves of the Russian diaspora, nor do they suggest a particularly shrewd propaganda campaign.
The American context is not identical, of course: Russia is much more heavily invested in the U.S. than in Canada, and it made a substantial effort to stoke divisions online during election season. But there is nonetheless a lesson here for the United States. When it comes to the effects of Russian influence campaigns, Moscow hasn’t really moved the needle in Washington any more than it has in Ottawa. For all the anxiety about Russia’s influence in the West, its track record in achieving favorable policy outcomes remains a dismal one.
In recent months, for example, Russia has tried to hawk a dicey Ukraine peace plan to the Trump Administration through a Ukrainian back channel; it has dispatched a top banker to Capitol Hill to argue for a rollback of sanctions; it has aggressively lobbied to change the narrative around the Magnitsky Act and undermine the law. Moscow is, by all accounts, actively trying to influence policy in the West, and it has visibly stepped up its outreach in Washington.
In each of these cases, though, the results for Russia have been the opposite of its intentions. In Ukraine, the Trump Administration’s special envoy has staked out a tough line on the Minsk Agreements and the Pentagon is advocating for sending lethal weapons. On the sanctions front, Russia has been hit with tough new restrictions and has seen Congress tie Trump’s hands on lifting existing sanctions. And when it comes to the Magnitsky Act, the precedent it has set is only gaining more traction around the world. Not only has Russia failed to repeal the original law, it has seen it spawn a copycat in Canada and a Global Magnitsky Act that was passed in the U.S. last year.
None of this is an argument for complacency. Russia has devious intentions, and in the years to come it will surely redouble efforts (both overt and covert) to shape policy outcomes in the West. But one can be clear-eyed about that threat while still acknowledging the limitations of Moscow’s ability to shift policy in its favor—as, indeed, it has largely failed to do since Trump’s election.
Canada’s passage of the Magnitsky Act is another welcome reminder that the bear is not as unstoppable as many Americans like to believe. Moscow’s impotent lobbying and threats of retaliation against Ottawa are not the actions of an emboldened rival so much as an embittered one, a frustrated power unable to realize its objectives. In a bitter irony for Putin, his electoral interference may have only made the West more wary and vigilant about Russia’s agenda—and thus made its fulfillment less likely.