Humanitarian agenda still divides Russia and the United States
Bilateral Russia-U.S. discussions on the margins of the April G8 Ministerial Meeting in Washington thrust some notable differences between the two sides on humanitarian issues into the public limelight. The putative adoption of the Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act, the trials of Russian citizens in U.S. courts, as well as the two countries' perspectives on the conflict in and around Syria have continued to be controversial for Russia-U.S. relations. And yet neither of these problems appears strategic or intractable.
It is notable that Washington rejected, at least publicly, Moscow's request to return Viktor Bout and Konstantin Yaroshenko to Russia while the 10 Russian intelligence agents detained in the United States in June 2010 were promptly sent home as part of an exchange deal. From an American point of view, the threat posed to the U.S. by Bout and Yaroshenko may have been stronger and more evident than that presented by the group of agents. No world power, including Russia, would waive its right to pursue such individuals across the globe and use every opportunity to have them detained and extradited. The charges on which Bout and Yaroshenko were convicted make their handover to Russia extremely problematic from both a legal and political perspective. However, this could also mean that Bout and Yaroshenko may be seen as exceptions by both the Russian and American sides. Some observers have not ruled out the possibility of a negotiation of their return to Russia at some point in the future.
In the meantime, the Magnitsky bill – a draft piece of legislation aimed at sanctioning an unspecified number of Russian officials for alleged human rights abuses – has been gathering bipartisan support in the U.S. Congress. And yet Moscow has every reason to believe that the Obama administration's willingness to prevent this draft bill from becoming law is sincere. The White House did not try to "hide behind the back" of Congress. On the contrary, it deployed all means available, including the congressional testimony of U.S. Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul (known for his pro-democracy credentials) who made the case against the Magnitsky bill. When a consensus on the need to move ahead with the bill began to emerge in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, the White House managed to postpone it being taken up by the Committee at least until the May visit to the United States of Russian President-elect Vladimir Putin. Indeed the final outcome will strongly depend on the progress of the Magnitsky case investigation within the Russian legal system.
Differences on Syria have proved resilient and surfaced once again during the Lavrov-Clinton talks in Washington. Some Russian observers think that the United States is criticizing Russia's stance on Syria because Washington wants to shift the blame for its own policy errors and the failure so far to remove the Assad regime. However, they may be overlooking the simple fact that Washington's stance on Syria is more about managing the upheaval in the Middle East than about weakening Russia's regional position or setting another precedent for an armed intervention into a sovereign state.
The logic of the American position derives from the lesson learnt on 9/11: the Middle Eastern hardline regimes generate more transnational security threats than initially assumed. Once popular uprisings started across Northern Africa, the Obama administration found that it had little choice but to endorse the revolutions that promised to take the lid off boiling discontent that had so often translated into asymmetric warfare and terrorism. Sitting on the fence would have cost Washington much of its already declining influence in the Middle East. Pressuring President Assad of Syria was a logical consequence of this policy line: if the local government fails to contain the protest movement (which the governments of Bahrain or Saudi Arabia managed to do), the United States cannot possibly back repression against the rebels. Bogged down in protracted fighting against the protestors, President Assad could not have counted on Washington's understanding.
Russia's support for President Assad was also predictable given Moscow's long-standing ties with Damascus, naval base arrangements, arms sales and the quest for Russia’s voice to be heard on the world stage. While still on a collision course when it comes to Syria, Russia and the U.S. may be gradually moving to the mutual conclusion that outside help to either side in the conflict may only fan the hostilities and propagate them throughout the fabric of Syrian society.
Both sides are also likely to realize that an Islamist takeover across the Middle East as a result of the "Arab awakening" is not the only danger. Reincarnation of authoritarian regimes in the region (which may be already happening in Iraq under Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki) could once again drive political forces of all stripes (including the radicals) underground and lead to the resumption of an asymmetric and guerilla warfare of everyone against everyone. This could lead to unpredictable consequences on both a regional and global scale.
At the end of the day, Moscow and Washington have a clear chance of bridging the gap in their approaches to acute bilateral humanitarian issues and avoid their evolution into another set of "systemic contradictions."
Mikhail Troitskiy is Adjunct professor at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations, member of the Working Group on the Future of U.S.-Russia Relations.
Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.