As U.S. President Barack Obama vies for a second term in office and Russian President-elect Vladimir Putin struggles to reassert his authority at the outset of his third, the so-called Magnitsky bill currently under debate in the U.S. Congress could define U.S.-Russia relations for the next decade.
Simply put, if and when the Magnitsky bill passes, Obama will have to sign it. To do otherwise would be electoral suicide. Similarly, Putin and the Russian elite will have to respond in kind. To do otherwise risks their continued authority, which for many members of the Russian elite could amount to actual suicide. So before either the White House or the Kremlin has a chance to negotiate the contours of their relationship in the 21st century, a major roadblock will have been placed in the way of positive collaboration, just as the 2006 assassination in London of former Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko put U.K.-Russia relations into a deep freeze for the past five years.
As usual, Western politicians and public opinion have taken the wrong lessons from the case of Sergei Magnitsky, a Russian tax lawyer brutally killed while in official custody in 2009. Though Magnitsky’s murder and the failure of the Russian authorities to hold those responsible to account are both deplorable, they are not evidence of the hyper-authoritarian police state that many in the West imagine Russia to be. Rather they are evidence of the progressive deterioration of the “vertical of power” that has formed the basis of Putin’s vision for the Russian state.