Fifteen months ago, as the U.S. presidential campaign was heating up and Vladimir Putin had just declared his intention to return to the Russian presidency, Washington and Moscow tacitly agreed to hit the "pause" button in their relations -- until after the elections in both countries. Election periods are notoriously inappropriate for new political initiatives. No serious breakthroughs can be expected; the most one can hope for is to preserve what has already been achieved so that, when the election dust settles, diplomats can build on it.
In 2012, this seemingly sensible approach failed spectacularly. The election year changed more than just the atmospherics of U.S.-Russian relations, and the change is a lasting one. This is due to something virtually unprecedented: the invasion of the exclusive world of U.S.-Russian diplomacy by Russian domestic politics. The only other time this has happened was in 1917. With the elections in both countries over, this invasion is turning into a permanent occupation, with disciplined diplomats being joined in the field by assorted groups of politicians and political activists with their special agendas. This makes both the substance and the structure of bilateral relations unrecognizable.
It all began with the flawed Duma election in December 2011, in which the opposition accused the Kremlin of vote-rigging. This sparked mass protests in Russia and provoked Vladimir Putin to publicly accuse the U.S. State Department of interfering in Russian politics. Some of Putin's supporters even suspected Michael McFaul, the newly appointed U.S. ambassador to Russia, of having a hidden agenda to promote a "Russian Spring." When Putin was celebrating his victory at the polls in March 2012, there were tears in his eyes. The Russian leader apparently believed he had just triumphed not only over his domestic opponents, but, more importantly, their "American paymasters."
The Obama administration was mildly shocked but took this in stride. It did not retaliate over McFaul's harassment in Moscow. It simply took note of the new Russian legislation branding foreign-funded NGOs as "foreign agents" and accepted Moscow's decision to terminate long-standing U.S. assistance programs, under both the Agency for International Development and the Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction initiative. There was some anti-Russian rhetoric in the U.S. presidential campaign, but it came from Republican candidate Mitt Romney, who used it to attack Obama's reset with Russia. The Democrats defended their record, and portrayed Romney as lost in a time warp.
Then came the Magnitsky Act, which barred officials implicated in the detention and death of corporate lawyer Sergey Magnitsky from entering the United States or keeping assets there. The act also kept the list of proscribed persons open, allowing the United States to add nearly any Russian official described as a human rights offender. Its drafters must have been genuinely concerned about justice and human rights in Russia and believed that their legislation would help. The majority of senators and members of Congress who supported the bill, however, did so out of sheer indifference toward relations with Russia. The Kremlin made it clear it would retaliate, but the Hill was not impressed.
In most cases, legislation singling out a particular state for punishment would mobilize those who care about relations with that country -- to make sure that support for human rights does not adversely affect U.S. national interests. But, in the Magnitsky case, Russia was revealed as fair game for all those who want to make a point for free. To believe that the Magnitsky Act will help is to believe that the higher the tensions in Russia and between Washington and Moscow, the sooner the end of the Russian autocracy. This is a huge gamble.
The anti-Magnitsky act passed by the Russian parliament in December 2012, which further restricted already battered Russian NGOs and ended the two-decades-long practice of allowing Americans to adopt Russian orphans, reflected the opposite attitude. Instead of indifference, it showed obsession with the United States, its role in the world, and its impact on Russia. Challenged by urban protesters representing the modernizing element in Russian society, the Kremlin and its allies visibly moved toward traditionalism and conservatism. The official patriotism that the more active members of this camp promote is now based on anti-Americanism. Contemporary Russian anti-Americanism is not a product of the anti-Magnitsky law, but it was greatly magnified by it. The moderates are running for cover.