* U.S. "Magnitsky Act" clouds prospects for cooperation
* Unlikely to affect Russia's stance on biggest issues
* Moscow vows to respond in kind to bill to bar abusers
By Steve Gutterman
MOSCOW, Dec 8 The U.S. Senate's passage of
legislation to punish Russians who violate human rights is the
first big test of Vladimir Putin and Barack Obama's resolve to
improve relations since each won elections.
Obama, who launched a "reset" in relations with Russia less
than four years ago, is likely to sign the law even though
Moscow sees it as "aggressively unfriendly". Damage to
U.S.-Russian relations is all but inevitable.
But there are signs that Putin, who won the presidency
despite the biggest protests of his 13-year rule, may want to
put the bad blood of a campaign in which he whipped up
anti-American sentiment behind him.
"I do not think that this will lead to a serious crisis in
Russian-American relations," said Dmitry Trenin, director of the
Carnegie Moscow Centre think tank.
"(Putin) does not intend to make relations worse, and for
this reason the effects of this legislation will be limited,"
The Senate approved the "Magnitsky Act" as part of a broader
bill to lift a Cold War-era restriction and grant Russia
"permanent normal trade relations" (PNTR), a move that in other
circumstances would have been celebrated in both capitals.
A month after Obama's re-election, it could have been the
cap on a period during which he signed a landmark nuclear arms
deal with Moscow and helped usher Russia into the World Trade
Organization (WTO) after an 18-year membership bid.
Instead, Moscow is furious over the human rights portion of
the bill, an unmistakable message to Putin of displeasure with
the treatment of Russians who dare challenge the authorities.
The main targets are those allegedly involved in the abuse
and death of Sergei Magnitsky, a lawyer who died in jail in 2009
- the victim, colleagues say, of retribution from the same
investigators he claimed stole $230 million from the state.
In a Foreign Ministry statement full of righteous anger,
Russia called the Senate vote a "performance in the theatre of
the absurd" and said the bill would badly cloud the prospects
for cooperation between Moscow and Washington.
How big the impact is largely up to Putin.
The law injects a dose of poison into a relationship
strained by the crisis in Syria and U.S. concerns about the
direction Putin has taken since he revealed last year that he
would return to the Kremlin after a stint as prime minister.
"It will have a negative impact on the atmosphere, that's
for sure," said Samuel Charap, senior fellow for Russia and
Eurasia at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in
The bill directs Obama to publish the names of Russians
allegedly involved in the abuse and death of Magnitsky, who was
jailed in 2008 on tax evasion and fraud charges colleagues say
were fabricated by investigators against whom he had given
Magnitsky, 37, said he was deliberately deprived of the
treatment he needed as his health deteriorated painfully in
jail, and the Kremlin's own human rights council has said he was
probably beaten to death.
The bill would also require the United States to deny visas
and freeze the assets of any of those individuals, as well as
other human rights violators in Russia not linked to Magnitsky,
on a continuing basis.
It is, at least in Russian eyes, almost a textbook example
of what Putin dislikes most about the United States: its
perceived use of human rights concerns as a geopolitical
instrument and the resort to sanctions for punishment.
In a decree signed hours after his inauguration to a
six-year third term in May, Putin said he wants "truly
strategic" ties with the United States but they must be based on
equality, non-interference and respect for one another's
Trenin said the law would reinforce Putin's wariness about
But he said Putin may want to focus on his long-stated goal
of improving economic ties with the United States, which have
not lived up to potential and which Putin and Obama pledged to
focus on when they met at a G20 summit in Mexico in June.
Russia has sought to reassure Americans that Moscow's
response to the bill would not affect business dealings.
The Magnitsky Act is the flipside of the bill to grant
Russia PNTR status, which both sides hope, along with Russia's
WTO membership, will bolster bilateral trade, which amounted to
a paltry $43 billion last year.
"There's a lot that can be done on that, and that is stuff
he understands and cares about," Charap said of Putin.
Russia has threatened to retaliate if Obama signs the bill
into law. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told U.S. Secretary of
State Hillary Clinton on Thursday that Russia would bar entry
for Americans "guilty of crude human rights abuses".
The plan to respond in kind, telegraphed in repeated
criticism of the bill, has spawned satire on the Internet. One
mock news report showed a pretend U.S. lawmaker lamenting an end
to summer vacations in Russia's industrial heartland.
Russia has also warned it would respond with "asymmetrical"
measures, seeming to hint the bill could have a spillover effect
into broader areas in which the United States wants Russian
cooperation most, such as nuclear arms control and Iran.
But analysts said that is unlikely. They said the law would
probably not derail Russian assistance on Afghanistan, affect
diplomacy aimed to curb Iran's nuclear programme or deepen
disputes over U.S. missile defence and the conflict in Syria.
"It will have a mostly symbolic effect," said Yevgeny Volk,
a Russian political analyst.