Jun 28, 2012 | 05:47 GMT

3 mins read

Another Low in U.S.-Russian Relations

It can be difficult to separate the important from unimportant on any given day. Reflections mean to do exactly that — by thinking about what happened today, we can consider what might happen tomorrow.

Russia's Foreign Ministry came out strongly Wednesday against a move in the U.S. Congress to approve a controversial human rights bill against Russia. Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov cautioned the United States to weigh the consequences of passing such a bill, and warned that Russia would take active measures in response if it did.

The U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee unanimously passed the "Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act" on Tuesday. The act would impose a travel ban and asset freeze on Russian officials linked to the jailing and death of Russian lawyer Sergei Magnitsky in 2009.

The Magnitsky bill will now head to the Senate, where it will probably come up for vote within months. Republican Senator John McCain and Democratic Senator Benjamin L. Cardin, who have long held hawkish views on Russia, have supported the bill. Though the bill received little attention this past year, worsening relations between Moscow and Washington over issues like Syria have given the act's backers more fuel to try passing the bill in the future.

Senators McCain and Cardin want to extend the bill's scope. Rather than simply banning travel and freezing assets, they would like the bill to bolster the Soviet-era Jackson-Vanik Amendment, which bars trade relations with certain countries guilty of human rights violations. Linking the Magnitsky bill to Jackson-Vanik would further strengthen trade bans on Russia, but it could also prevent the United States from recognizing Russia's membership in the World Trade Organization, thus dealing relations a symbolic blow. McCain and Cardin also are said to be working with other governments — including Canada, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom and Poland — to help them adopt their own versions of the Magnitsky bill.

U.S. President Barack Obama, who would rather not further strain relations between Washington and Moscow, opposes the Magnitsky bill and could veto it if it passes the Senate. However, doing so would create further tension with the Senate (including with members of his own party). Russia is now working on its response to the Magnitsky bill — a response that could include bans on U.S. officials and trade. 

The Magnitsky bill symbolizes the current poor state of U.S.-Russian relations. A series of issues over the past few months have impaired ties between Washington and Moscow. In May, the Russia-NATO Summit was cancelled due to Russia's disagreement with Washington's plans for ballistic missile defense in Europe. The United States has spoken out against Russia's support for the Syrian regime, including a recent shipment of attack helicopters sent to Syria in a Russian cargo ship. And in recent weeks, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton toured states Moscow views as being within Russia's strategic sphere of influence.

Despite their embittered relations, neither Moscow nor Washington is seeking a break at this time. The United States wants Russia to continue to support logistical efforts in Afghanistan and does not want Moscow to push its support for Syria too far. Russia, on the other hand, does not want poor relations with the United States to force its key European partners — particularly France and Germany — to turn their backs on Moscow. Each of these issues adds friction to the fight between Moscow and Washington over a redefined balance of power in the world, particularly in Eurasia. 

While the Magnitsky bill is largely a symbolic move by increasingly Russia-wary forces in the United States, the potential exists for an escalation that could lead to more serious moves against Russia.

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