Human Rights Abuses Law, Missile Defense Top Agenda for Obama-Putin Meeting

By Patrick Goodenough | June 18, 2012 | 4:57 AM EDT

President Barack Obama shakes hands with then-Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin in Moscow on July 7, 2009. (AP Photo/Haraz N. Ghanbari, File)

( – President Obama is due to meet with Vladimir Putin for the first time in the Russian leader’s capacity as president on Monday, one day before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee marks up human rights legislation that has angered the Kremlin.

The Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act would sanction Russian officials responsible for violations against human rights advocates and anti-corruption activists. A House version passed the House Foreign Affairs Committee earlier this month.

Named for a Russian whistleblower who died in custody in 2009, the legislation would establish a public list of rights violators who would be denied U.S. visas and have U.S.-based assets frozen.

Obama in 2009 expressed the desire to “reset” long-strained relations with Moscow but the initiative has faced a number of difficulties.

The Magnitsky law is not the only challenging topic on the agenda for his meeting with Putin on the sidelines of a G20 summit in Los Cabos, Mexico.

A Putin aide, Yuri Ushakov, told a press briefing at the Kremlin Sunday they would also discuss the crisis in Syria, where any “forceful meddling” from outside was unacceptable. Recent days have seen the U.S. and Russian governments exchange criticism over U.S. allegations that Moscow is sending attack helicopters to the Assad regime. Russia disputes the charges.

The official RIA Novosti news agency quoted Ushakov as saying the agenda would also include the “sensitive” dispute over European-based missile defense, a U.S.-led project under NATO command.

Russia strongly opposes the shield – which is designed to counter attack from Iran – saying it will weaken its own nuclear deterrent, an assertion the Pentagon denies.

In reference to the missile defense issue, Ushakov conceded that significant decisions were rarely taken during U.S. presidential election campaigns, “but I believe the discussion itself will be useful for the both parties.”

During a meeting with outgoing Russian President Dmitry Medvedev in Seoul last March, Obama was overheard telling him that Putin needs to give him “space” on the missile defense issue. Obama explained that he would have “more flexibility” after his re-election, and Medvedev assured him he would pass on the message to Putin.

Putin said during a visit to a Russian air base on Thursday that he hopes to see the U.S. proposals revised, but warned that Russia was prepared to provide a proper “response” if the plans were implemented.

NATO announced on May 20 that the early stage of the missile defense system was up and running. The phase now operational involves the deployment of the radar station in Turkey and a U.S. Navy warship in the eastern Mediterranean, equipped to track and destroy ballistic missiles in flight.

The missile defense standoff has dragged on for a decade, but the Magnitsky legislation could end up being the most difficult subject on Monday’s meeting agenda.

Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov late last week said passage of the legislation would be “an unacceptable extraterritorial application of American legislation.”

“I hope we will not have to do it, but if such outrageous action really takes place, our reaction will be extremely stern,” he said.

At Sunday’s briefing, Ushakov said although many countries block entry to people deemed undesirable, the practice is usually carried out discreetly.

The pending American legislation, on the other hand, was  “an ostentatious anti-Russian move,” he said.

The Magnitsky bill has become tied up with U.S. plans to normalize trade relations with Moscow – following the administration’s approval last December of Russia’s accession to the World Trade Organization (WTO) – and a push to repeal the 1974 Jackson-Vanik amendment’s application to Russia.

The provision linked U.S. trade to free emigration for Jews and other religious minorities, and its repeal is seen as a necessity if U.S. businesses are to benefit from Russia’s WTO membership.

A bill to grant Russia permanent normal trade relations (PNTR) and repeal the Jackson-Vanik amendment has been introduced in the Senate, and its main sponsor, Senate Finance Committee chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.), last week secured support from Republican colleagues by pledging to link it to the Magnitsky bill.

“I am confident that the resulting Russia PNTR-Magnitsky legislation will enjoy strong support in the Finance Committee and can be quickly taken up by the full Senate,” Baucus said in a June 12 letter to Republican Sens. John McCain (Ariz.) and Roger Wicker (Miss.) and independent Sen. Joe Lieberman (Conn.).

‘Broader and deeper cooperation’

Despite the difficult issues between the U.S. and Russian governments, Ushakov said that in an exchange of messages last month Obama and Putin “confirmed their mutual striving for broader and deeper cooperation and its new level.”

He cited progress in areas like the signing of the New START Treaty, Russian approval of the use of its territory for the transit of NATO supplies to Afghanistan, and an agreement relaxing visa formalities for U.S. and Russian tourists and business travelers.

“Acting in the spirit of partnership, our countries are capable of finding solutions to the most difficult problems for the sake of further cooperation and strengthening of international security, for which Russia and the United States bear special responsibility as the biggest nuclear powers,” Ushakov said.

Dialogue should be based on equality, mutual respect and non-interference in each other’s internal affairs, he added.

U.S. deputy national security advisor for communications Ben Rhodes told a briefing Friday that the agenda for the Obama-Putin meeting would cover “a range of issues,” including Afghanistan, Iran, trade issues, and Syria.

He made no specific reference to missile defense or the human rights legislation.

Asked whether the disagreement over Syria marked the end of the “reset,” Rhodes said the differences over Syria were “very substantial” but that the U.S. was “able to work with the Russians and cooperate on a set of issues even though we have differences.”

“And it’s our view that just because you have difference on certain issues doesn’t mean that you want to throw aside the very substantial cooperation that we’re getting with the Russians – again – on issues from Afghanistan to Iran to nuclear security,” he added.

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Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow