Why the West must confront Putin



Recent events have only strengthened hedge-fund manager Bill Browder’s case against the Kremlin, a prominent Moscow-based journalist writes. In order to advance the now-celebrated Magnitsky Act, Browder approached the Helsinki Commission, an independent federal agency in Washington that monitors human rights, where he met Benjamin Cardin, a Democratic senator from Maryland, The New Yorker’s Joshua Yaffa writes:

Cardin told me that visitors routinely bring him tales of injustice and atrocity. “But what was unique here was Bill Browder,” he said—in particular, Browder’s ability to tell the story of Magnitsky’s suffering. “We were as outraged as he was,” he told me. David Kramer, who was the president of Freedom House at the time and sat in on a number of congressional meetings and hearings where Browder gave testimony, said, “I think it boils down to one phrase I heard him use numerous times: ‘They killed my guy.’ He feels a responsibility and obligation to make sure Sergei didn’t die in vain, and it’s hard to argue with that.”

The Magnitsky Act might have languished had it not been for the fact that, in 2012, Russia was about to become a member of the World Trade Organization, Yaffa adds:

In order to grant Russia what the group calls “permanent normal trade relations” status, Congress would have to repeal the Jackson-Vanik amendment, a 1975 measure aimed at the Soviet Union that penalized trade with countries that had restrictive emigration policies. Legislators did not want to rescind the law without sending the Kremlin a message about American toughness on human rights. Stephen Sestanovich, [a former National Endowment for Democracy board member] who worked on Russia policy in the Reagan and Clinton Administrations, explained to me that, more than the legislation’s particular merits, “the real question was whether Congress and the White House could find any substitute for Jackson-Vanik other than Magnitsky. The answer turned out to be no, they couldn’t.”

The failure to make progress in freeing the Russian economy from economic sanctions is a setback for Putin both domestically and globally, The New York Times adds:

In Mr. Trump, Mr. Putin and some in the Kremlin thought they had a get-out-of-sanctions-free card. Despite the lack of concrete agreements, the first summit meeting between the two leaders, in Helsinki, Finland, last month, reinforced Russian expectations that the American president would fulfill his campaign promise to mend ties.

“Many hoped that the Helsinki summit would reset U.S.-Russia relations, and if not help lift the existing sanctions, then at least avoid further rounds,” said Maria Snegovaya, a United States-based Russia analyst and columnist for the newspaper Vedomosti.

The Kremlin’s standard response since the Crimea annexation has been to rally Russians around the flag, depicting the country as a besieged fortress. After four years, however, ordinary Russians find that formula tiresome, analysts said, and Mr. Putin’s declining popularity can be attributed partly to his inability to mend fences with the West, The Times adds.

“People are saying, ‘Please maintain Russia as a great power, but not at the expense of our income,’” said Lev D. Gudkov, (right), the director of the Levada Center, an independent polling organization. “When they started to sense that Putin’s foreign policy became too expensive, the attitude began to change and the sense of irritation is growing.”

Putin’s approval rating has dropped 15 percentage points, to 64 percent from 79 percent, according to a Levada poll.

Vladimir Kara-Murza, a Russian opposition activist who has been poisoned twice in Russia, has accompanied him on his European campaign, notes The New Yorker’s Joshua Yaffa. “With time, Bill has proved that whatever he may have done in the past, he is genuine and serious about this work now. I have great respect for him,” he said.

The opacity of the Russian bureaucracy and the lack of any prosecutions within Russia meant that much of the information Browder offered was difficult to confirm, Yaffa adds:

As Michael Carpenter, a career diplomat at the State Department who worked on Russia policy and later served on the National Security Council, told me, “We had strong confidence in the details of the over-all Magnitsky story, but where we had less confidence initially was the culpability of particular individuals.” ….

[Former U.S. envoy to Moscow, Stanford University’s Michael] McFaul added, after the Russian state singled him out, as they had Browder, he gained a new perspective. “I, tragically, have a new appreciation for what Bill has endured all these years of being chased around the world through Interpol,” he said. “I had earlier thought about it in the abstract—but when I started to think about it myself, in real time, it gave me a new sense of respect for his mission.” RTWT

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