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Will the Magnitsky list spoil Donilon’s Russia trip?

The Obama administration released a list of Russian human rights violators Friday, further complicating the U.S.-Russia relationship just as Obama’s top foreign-policy advisor is about to visit Moscow. The State Department heavily resisted the Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act of 2012 when it was going through Congress last year, but lost the argument, ...

Alex Wong/Getty Images
Alex Wong/Getty Images
Alex Wong/Getty Images

The Obama administration released a list of Russian human rights violators Friday, further complicating the U.S.-Russia relationship just as Obama's top foreign-policy advisor is about to visit Moscow.

The Obama administration released a list of Russian human rights violators Friday, further complicating the U.S.-Russia relationship just as Obama’s top foreign-policy advisor is about to visit Moscow.

The State Department heavily resisted the Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act of 2012 when it was going through Congress last year, but lost the argument, and was forced to compile and then release the list of Russian officials now subject to visa bans and asset freezes by an April 13 deadline. The list includes 18 names, including16 officials directly related to the case of Magnitsky, the anti-corruption lawyer who died in prison after allegedly being tortured, but doesn’t include most of the 240 names submitted to the State Department or any top Russian officials close to President Vladimir Putin.

National Security Advisor Tom Donilon will be in Moscow April 14 and 15. According to reports, he is there primarily to entice Moscow to enter discussions over missile-defense cooperation, following the Obama administration’s decision to cancel development of a new missile, known as the SM-IIB, that Russia has said could threaten its own ICBM capabilities.

Congressional reaction to the Magnitsky list has been mixed, with some key sponsors of the legislation critical of the administration for creating a small list and others holding out hope that the list will be expanded in the near future.

"I am deeply disappointed by the Obama Administration’s announcement today that only 18 individuals have been added to the human rights sanctions list required by the Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act," Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), an original sponsor, said in a statement. "At a time when citizens and civil society groups are being denied justice across Russia, the United States has a responsibility to show our Russian friends and partners that there can still be accountability and consequences when basic human rights are violated. That’s why robust implementation of the Magnitsky Act is so critical and why today’s announcement is so damaging."

McCain said that Congress will begin work on additional legislation to compel the Obama administration to implement the law more forcefully and said that even a separate, classified list created by the State Department of officials who are subject only to visa bans is also inadequate.

Rep. Jim McGovern (D-MA), another key sponsor of the law, said in his own statement Thursday that he was assured the list was only a first draft.

"While the list is timid and features more significant omissions than names, I was assured by Administration officials today that the investigation is ongoing, and further additions will be made to the list as new evidence comes to light," he said. "The fact that a name is not on the list does not mean that person is innocent."

William Browder, the CEO of Hermitage Capital who employed Magnitsky, told The Cable in an interview that the fact that the list exists, even in an incomplete form, represents a victory for those who want to stand up to Russian human rights practices.

"This is an historic moment in the fight against impunity and human rights atrocities by having the U.S. government come up with the new policy of banning visas and freezing assets of violators in countries that are not considered enemies of the U.S. It means that you can still conduct diplomacy and condemn atrocities at the same time," he said. "The list is a good start but there are a lot more evidence available of other people that should be processed and those people should be added in the future. There are also a number of other gross human rights abuses in Russia unrelated to Magnitsky that need to be captured as this list gets formulated in the future."

A senior State Department official briefing reporters Friday defended the size of the Magnitsky list and said that asset freezes needed to meet a high standard determined by the Treasury Department, requiring a smaller list initially.

"Putting a name on this list is a serious undertaking. You better know what you are doing and why and you better have a demonstrable reason for doing so," the official said. "We have implemented this law in a fair spirit and diligently."

Critics accused the administration of minimizing the list in order to soften the expected retaliatory moves from Moscow, which have already included a Russian ban on American adoptions of Russian babies, the refusal of visas for U.S. congressmen, and a crackdown on international NGOs.

"Political considerations were not a factor," the State Department official said.

Nevertheless, the timing could not be worse for a White House intent on coaxing the Russians into negotiations over linking their anti-missile batteries to the ever-expanding U.S.-NATO missile defense shield in Eastern Europe. The missile-defense talks are only one item on Donilon’s agenda. He is also seeking Russian cooperation on further reductions of nuclear weapons and Russian help in solving the crisis in Syria.

Even before the Magnitsky list was released, the Russians said publicly they were still opposed to U.S. missile-defense plans in Eastern Europe, despite the Obama administration’s cancellation of the SM-IIB missile.

"All aspects of strategic uncertainty related to the creation of a U.S. and NATO missile defense system remain. Therefore, our objections also remain," Deputy Foreign Minister Segei Ryabkov said in March.

Experts now see Russian retaliation and intransigence increasing and the prospects of Donilon bringing home some agreement from Moscow on missile defense dwindling.

"Mr. Donilon will get an earful on a whole lot of things that stem from the Magnitsky issue. It will be another reason why Mr. Putin will continue to do the things he’s doing," said Thomas Moore, senior fellow and deputy director of the CSIS proliferation prevention program. "The Russian position has not changed; they are opposed to any missile defenses existing or planned. I think this visit is a waste of Donilon’s time in a lot of ways but I guess there’s always a need to try."

The National Security Staff declined requests for comment on Donilon’s trip.

Be sure to read FP’s Elias Groll‘s run down of the 18 Russian officials on the Magnitsky list.

Josh Rogin covers national security and foreign policy and writes the daily Web column The Cable. His column appears bi-weekly in the print edition of The Washington Post. He can be reached for comments or tips at josh.rogin@foreignpolicy.com.

Previously, Josh covered defense and foreign policy as a staff writer for Congressional Quarterly, writing extensively on Iraq, Afghanistan, Guantánamo Bay, U.S.-Asia relations, defense budgeting and appropriations, and the defense lobbying and contracting industries. Prior to that, he covered military modernization, cyber warfare, space, and missile defense for Federal Computer Week Magazine. He has also served as Pentagon Staff Reporter for the Asahi Shimbun, Japan's leading daily newspaper, in its Washington, D.C., bureau, where he reported on U.S.-Japan relations, Chinese military modernization, the North Korean nuclear crisis, and more.

A graduate of George Washington University's Elliott School of International Affairs, Josh lived in Yokohama, Japan, and studied at Tokyo's Sophia University. He speaks conversational Japanese and has reported from the region. He has also worked at the House International Relations Committee, the Embassy of Japan, and the Brookings Institution.

Josh's reporting has been featured on CNN, MSNBC, C-Span, CBS, ABC, NPR, WTOP, and several other outlets. He was a 2008-2009 National Press Foundation's Paul Miller Washington Reporting Fellow, 2009 military reporting fellow with the Knight Center for Specialized Journalism and the 2011 recipient of the InterAction Award for Excellence in International Reporting. He hails from Philadelphia and lives in Washington, D.C. Twitter: @joshrogin

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