The Realist Prism: White House Makes a Play for Russia’s Pragmatists

The Realist Prism: White House Makes a Play for Russia’s Pragmatists

Even without the tragic bombings at the Boston Marathon this week, it is unlikely that the visit of U.S. National Security Adviser Tom Donilon to Moscow would have generated front-page news. But his meetings -- including direct contact with Russian President Vladimir Putin, to whom Donilon handed over a personal letter from President Barack Obama -- could end up being quite significant.

After a year in which U.S.-Russia relations have deteriorated, Donilon's visit, which had already been postponed twice, was intended to reverse this decline and break the deadlock created by disagreements over Syria and human rights. Unfortunately, Donilon arrived in Moscow shortly after the first tit-for-tat exchange over dueling laws passed by the U.S. Congress and the Russian Duma. Last week, 18 Russians were sanctioned under the provisions of the Magnitsky Act, which mandates the State Department to identify those responsible for human rights abuses, starting with those identified to have been involved in the mistreatment of lawyer Sergei Magnitsky, who died in police custody. The identified parties are barred from entering the United States and any of their assets held in U.S. institutions are frozen. The Russians then exercised provisions of a mirror law and placed 18 U.S. citizens, including several former officials involved in the creation of the detention camp at Guantanamo Bay and others who authorized enhanced interrogation techniques for detainees, on a list of those prohibited from entering Russia.

While many of those on the Russian list, including John Yoo, the former assistant U.S. attorney general in the Office of Legal Counsel during the Bush administration, are not likely to travel to Russia anyway, their inclusion on a Russian blacklist may encourage other countries to emulate Moscow's decision. That could end up creating headaches for the Obama administration, which would find itself under pressure to defend the right to travel without fear of prosecution of individuals involved in Bush administration programs that President Barack Obama has criticized in the past. Given the release of the two lists, Alexey Pushkov, the chairman of the Duma's International Relations Committee, opined that Donilon had chosen an "unsuitable moment" for his visit to Moscow.

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