Poking the Russian Bear: A New Cold War?

The Jackson-Vanik Amendment and the Magnitsky Bill are almost unknown in this country, but are frequently cited in Russia as proof that the US is stuck in a Cold War mentality. NYU Russian Studies Prof. Stephen Cohen cites these issues as key elements in what he calls “America’s New Cold War With Russia.” Here’s a quick, simplified time line:

1974: Both houses of the US Congress unanimously pass the Jackson-Vanik Amendment to the 1974 Trade Act. It applies economic trade penalties to the Soviet Union to punish it for restricting emigration of Soviet Jews wishing to move to Israel or the US. Jackson-Vanik does not have its intended effect: To show the US it can’t boss them around the Soviets decrease the number of exit visas after its passage.

1985: Mikhail Gorbachev comes to power in the Soviet Union and institutes a number of reforms, including relatively free emigration. However, Jackson-Vanik stays on the books and is seen by the Russians as a sign of ongoing American hostility and Cold War thinking.

August 22, 2012: Russia becomes a member of the World Trade Organization. Because Jackson-Vanik violates WTO rules, Russia is not required to give US exports its lowest tariffs, hurting American business. The US Chamber of Commerce lobbies for repeal Jackson-Vanik, but many in Congress balk at what they see as rewarding Russia. Nothing happens.

Fall 2012: Those opposed to “rewarding” Russia by repealing Jackson-Vanik push the “Magnitsky Bill” as an alternative. This bill would penalize Russia for the death of Sergei Magnitsky, a Russian attorney who died while in police custody. At a minimum, Magnitsky was denied critically needed medical care, and at worst, he was beaten to death. The Magnitsky Bill seeks to punish a number of Russian officials who are believed to have been responsible for this travesty. By focusing on individuals, it avoids the WTO trap.

December 2012: Under continued pressure from American business interests, Congress combines repeal of Jackson-Vanik with the Magnitsky Bill, trading one poke in Russia’s eye for another. President Obama wanted Jackson-Vanik repealed without the Magnitsky Bill, but signs the combined legislation to help American business.

December 2012: The Russian Duma responds tit-for-tat to the Magnitsky Bill by passing the “Dima Yakovlev Law,” sometimes referred to as the anti-Magnitsky Bill. Dima Yakovlev was a Russian toddler who was adopted by an American couple and who died from heat stroke after his adoptive father forgot that he was strapped into a child seat in the back of the car and left him there for nine hours. The father was acquitted of involuntary manslaughter, causing an outcry within some elements of Russian society. Dima’s Law prevents Americans from adopting Russian orphans.

January 2013: Thousands of Russians march in Moscow to protest the adoption ban. Russian media covered the protest, and a number of Russian newspaper editorials pointed out the absurdity of using helpless orphans as political pawns. Prof. Cohen’s article notes a glaring contrast between Russian and American coverage of the saga:

Under President Vladimir Putin’s “authoritarian regime,” the Russian media were filled with heated controversy over the adoption ban, including denunciations of Putin for signing it. In the “democratic” US mainstream media, on the other hand, there has been only applause for the Magnitsky Act and President Obama’s decision to sign it. Nor is this the first time leading American newspapers and television and radio outlets have been cheerleaders for a new cold war. … 

Dissenting opinions rarely, if ever, appear on influential op-ed pages or on national television or radio. (Cable, even MSNBC, and “public” broadcasting are no different.) Editorial bias has even spilled over into news reporting. In particular, the media’s relentless demonization of Putin, often unfactual or illogical, has nearly displaced serious, multidimensional analysis.

A good example of the Russian media questioning their government’s actions is a December 13 article in The Moscow News which noted:

The best thing the [Russian] 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.

Other examples of Russian coverage include articles in The Moscow Times dated November 26, December 26, December 28, The December 28 article even notes that Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has “publicly voiced opposition to the legislation [banning American adoptions of Russian orphans].”

Poking Russia in the eye increases nuclear risk in at least two ways. First, it needlessly insults and angers a nation capable of destroying us in under an hour, creating an atmosphere of hostility. Second, it makes it almost impossible to recruit Russian help on reining in Iran’s nuclear program. Isn’t it time we demanded that our media assume the same role that the Russian press has in questioning the absurdity of the Jackson-Vanik-Magnitsky-Dima saga?

Martin Hellman

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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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