No one could have predicted the recent rapid escalation in tension in Russian-US relations just a few weeks ago. The year never promised to be particularly auspicious for the relationship, with experts in early 2012 saying that the best that could be hoped for would be to minimize losses.
An election year is not the best time to improve relations, and 2012 saw Vladimir Putin seek a third-term as president in the winter and Barack Obama and Mitt Romney wage a fierce battle for the White House in the fall.
With the elections over, Russia’s leadership breathed a collective sigh of relief and congratulated Obama on his victory. The storm broke out later, when Congress passed the Magnitsky Act and President Obama signed it into law.
Why did Moscow respond so harshly to a piece of US legislation that had been in the pipeline for so long? There seem to be two reasons for the decision not to respond to the Magnitsky Act with a comparable Bout or Yaroshenko Act, instead opting to reply asymmetrically by exploiting a highly delicate issue and combining it with a political broadside against the United States as a whole.
First, the Magnitsky Act, whose loose wording allows US lawmakers or the administration to impose sanctions on virtually any Russian citizen, is seen in Russia as crossing every conceivable red line. Russia has long been angry at the US for applying its laws outside its national territory.
The straw that broke the Kremlin’s back was the Magnitsky Act, which may prove more durable even than the notorious Jackson-Vanik amendment that it replaced. Second, the Kremlin wants to preclude any future exploitation of internal Russian issues on the international stage.
Vladimir Putin has always favored a classical approach to international relations. He believes that the principle of national sovereignty is inviolable, because violations of sovereignty risk unbalancing the system and causing other adverse effects.
Erasing the distinction between internal and external issues undermines structural integrity. The Russian president believes that everything that has happened in the 21st century testifies to the destructive nature of the liberal vision of universal human rights, involving the right to interfere in other countries’ internal affairs with the stated aim of protecting their citizens.
The United States epitomizes this approach. Owing to its political philosophy and belief in its superior social system, the US thinks it is possible and even necessary to evaluate other countries, to pass judgment on them, and sometimes to enforce this judgment with the help of the military.
The United States, as a superpower, uses this moral and ideological authority to pursue its broadly defined national interests; in fact, the two are inseparable. This has always been the case and will remain so as long as the United States has both the status and the resources to enforce its views of right and wrong outside its borders.
The Russia of the 2010s does not believe that the US has sufficient reason to present itself as a model state. Russia’s forceful response to the Magnitsky Act was designed to demonstrate that domestic affairs are not open to bilateral discussion.
Vladimir Putin views the outside world as both highly dangerous and unpredictable. Globalization and the open flow of information are eroding the barriers or membranes that once protected states from outside influences, and negative processes have started to reinforce each other.
Avoiding this altogether is impossible. The Russian president understands that the time of isolationism is over, negative influences should at least be minimized, and membranes should act not as walls but as filters.
Putin believes that the policies of powerful countries – primarily the United States, which compounds unpredictability with its zeal for interference – are either malicious or reckless. To bring them to their senses, they must be put in their place.
This view is supported by changes underway in the United States, where a growing number of people no longer want their country to act as the world’s policeman. At first it seemed that this new attitude was unique to Barack Obama, who is by no means a typical Washington politician.
But it appears that this idea is rapidly gaining ground throughout the country, along with the belief that the United States should share the burden of managing the international system with those who are in a position to help. Provided, of course, they do not act against the United States, but rather coordinate their actions with it.
In practical terms, those who share US values and principles – the country’s traditional allies – have little to offer. Europe has scaled back its ambitions and is clawing its way out of a deep hole, so the United States will have to deal not with kindred spirits but with countries who can actually contribute to areas of common cause. No matter how Russia is seen, the United States is unlikely to resolve its problems without Russian assistance, and certainly not in the face of Russian resistance.
Putin is aware of the changes in the United States and plans to use them to introduce a new model of relations. Russia is willing to cooperate, but only as an equal partner and only if internal affairs are off-limit. So, for example, we will honor the agreement on NATO’s transit of equipment to Afghanistan via Russia, no matter what the Communists and the nationalists may say, but will stand up to anyone who tries to interfere in our internal affairs.
Putin is mostly right about the United States’ standing and even the global situation, but he did not appropriately calibrate the response to the Magnitsky Act. Being seen as a country that uses orphans for political revenge is worse than being seen as an aggressor. The exploitation of such a delicate issue has shocked even the influential part of the Russian establishment.
Worse still, the issue was manipulated and distorted so shamelessly that even seasoned political players balked. Russia’s reputation as a country that honors its agreements has been called into question, as its adoption agreement with the United States was ratified only last summer and came into effect on November 1.
Moreover, the “Dima Yakovlev bill” can not be considered an adequate response, because a campaign aimed against adoptive parents will not damage the United States.
Strangely, the Russian-US relationship is still quite good when it comes to practical matters. Differences over Syria and the broader Middle East, as well as over the US missile defense system, and the feeble speculation on the almost mythical NATO’s expansion cannot be described as critical. Both Washington and Moscow carefully avoid the sharp corners on really important issues, such as Afghan transit.
The Obama Administration is also taking a more prudent approach on the perennial issues of democracy and human rights than your average US administration. Even the Magnitsky Act was passed not as a separate law, as had initially been suggested, but jointly with the repeal of the Cold War relic, the Jackson-Vanik amendment.
Many hoped that Obama and Putin would use their new terms in office to set about building new relations between the United States and Russia without wasting time on passing considerations and selective emotions. But it appears that, for now, that is not in the cards.