Poking the Russian Bear, An Update

As noted in my November 25 posting, “Poking the Russian Bear — Again,” the Jackson-Vanik Amendment has been a needless, major irritant in Russian-American relations for decades, but also became an economic burden to America when Russia acceded to the World Trade Organization this summer. Rather than just repeal Jackson-Vanik as an outdated relic of the Cold War, both houses of Congress have now merged that action with passage of the so-called Magnitsky Bill – trading one poke in Russia’s eye for another. Given the economic importance of repealing Jackson-Vanik, President Obama is expected to sign the bill even though the White House had lobbied for a less provocative approach to improving human rights in Russia. One of the most interesting articles on this foreign relations fiasco appeared in today’s Moscow News., which says in part:

The State Duma is also discussing the creation of various blacklists of U.S. officials and other citizens who will be denied visas and whose Russian bank accounts will be frozen [mirror imaging the Magnitsky Bill]. Yet the proposed measures contradict the Kremlin’s legitimate argument that matters of domestic law and order are internal affairs. The measures are also easily susceptible to ridicule since nobody on the blacklist is likely to ever hold their money in a Russian bank or buy property in the country. [A November 26 article, also in the Moscow News, made a similar argument about the US law.] 

The best thing the authorities could have done to prevent this dilemma was to vigorously investigate the circumstances of Magnitsky’s death. Even if only a few of the main figures had been properly investigated and prosecuted in a timely fashion, Russia might have averted the Magnitsky Act. It also would have sent a much-needed message to corrupt officials that their actions compromise national interests and tarnish the country’s reputation.

But now, the Kremlin has backed itself in a corner. Since the Magnitsky Act has passed both houses of Congress, Russia is even less likely to prosecute the people associated with Magnitsky’s death and the related embezzlement scheme because it might look like Moscow caved in to U.S. pressure. [emphasis added]

The idea emphasized above is one that is often overlooked. We tend to have what systems theorists would call a “zeroth order” model of personal and international relations. If a book is sitting on my desk and I push on it, the book moves in the direction I pushed. Similarly, we tend to assume that sanctions on Russia or other nations will force them to move in the desired direction. But the 1974 Jackson-Vanik Amendment, which was intended to push the Soviet Union to allow freer emigration of Jewish refuseniks, had the opposite effect. Fewer emigration visas were issued after Jackson-Vanik was passed than before, and probably for the same reason suggested by the Moscow News:  No government wants to be seen as caving in to outside pressure.

A similar problem was noted in my November 25 post, where Soviet support for Martin Luther King in the 1960s had a negative impact, leading many Americans to view the civil rights movement as communist inspired.

Another point worth mentioning is that the Moscow News excerpt above is far from what one would expect in an authoritarian country with a controlled press – an image that many Americans have today of Russia. I’d encourage you to check out their home page and see other Moscow News stories as well. For example, as I write this, the lead headline is “Russia Implicated in Litvinenko Death,” not something with which the Russian government would agree.

Finally, how do Jackson-Vanik and the Magnitsky Bill fit with the theme of this blog, “Defusing the Nuclear Threat”? Needlessly poking the Russian bear in the eye makes it less willing to work with us on reining in Iran’s nuclear program (see my October 14, 2101 posting for a more complete explanation) and other important nuclear issues. It also reinforces fears among many Russians that the US is “out to get them,” increasing the risk that innocent actions on our part will be misinterpreted and lead to a confrontation with nuclear possibilities. Perhaps most importantly, by basing our foreign policy on outmoded or incorrect assumptions, we increase the risk of stumbling into a crisis that could lead to nuclear threats – and any Russian-American crisis has a nuclear potential.

Martin Hellman

Note added December 14, 2012: President Obama signed the combined bill today, raising questions about how much the US is committed to the rule of law vs. black lists.

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About Martin Hellman

I am a professor at Stanford University, best known for my invention of public key cryptography -- the technology that protects the secure part of the Internet, such as electronic banking. But, for almost 30 years, my primary interest has been how fallible human beings can survive possessing nuclear weapons, where even one mistake could be catastrophic. My latest project is a book with the audacious subtitle "Creating True Love at Home & Peace on the Planet." Its soon to open website explains: https://anewmap.com.
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2 Responses to Poking the Russian Bear, An Update

  1. Russ Wellen says:

    Thanks, Marty. I understand this much better now.

  2. Rich Eisen says:

    if we don’t start to get all of these missiles defused, I am afraid to say that our planet has less than 25 years before we experience a nuclear winter. these, along with new missiles have to be monitered 24/7, and they are not. Didn’t anyone see the movie How I learned to love the bomb?

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