Russia’s move to prohibit Americans from adopting Russian orphans is the latest threat to the Obama administration’s flagging attempt to “reset” relations between the two Cold War rivals.
President Vladimir Putin today signed a bill to ban U.S. adoptions of Russian children that the country’s parliament approved in retaliation for a new U.S. law sanctioning Russians accused of human rights violations. The prohibition goes into effect Jan. 1, according to a statement e-mailed by the Kremlin.
The U.S. today criticized the Russian action, with State Department spokesman Patrick Ventrell saying that more than 60,000 Russian children have been adopted by Americans in the past 20 years. The State Department reports that 962 Russian children were adopted by Americans in 2011, about one in ten U.S. international adoptions.
“The Russian government’s politically motivated decision will reduce adoption possibilities for children who are now under institutional care,” he said in an e-mailed statement. He also expressed concern that the ban will halt adoptions already underway, preventing “those children who have already met and bonded with their future parents to finish the necessary legal procedures so that they can join their families.”
The action and reaction reflect a relationship already strained by friction over other issues, such as democracy promotion, missile defense, weapons proliferation and the conflict in Syria. While relations are much improved from the Cold War era of mutual assured destruction, they’re getting frosty again with nationalist sentiment rising in Russia as the economy loses steam and the world’s biggest energy exporter faces slipping oil prices.
“The reset accomplished most of its objectives, and now the question is where do you go from here?” said Angela Stent, director of the Center for Eurasian, Russian and East European Studies at Georgetown University in Washington. “That is more questionable.”
Peppery rhetoric has been fueling the fire. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has called Russia’s defense of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad “despicable”, and her spokesman dismissed the country as “back in the USSR.” Russia’s Pravda.ru website responded by using the acronym “FUKUS” to describe its main United Nations opponents on Syria — France, the U.K. and the U.S.
Russia and the U.S., though, still need to work together to resolve number of dangerous issues, including Syria, North Korea, Iran’s suspected nuclear weapons program, and reviving negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians. The Obama administration also hopes to work with Russia on expanding trade and U.S. investment, and would like to broker more arms control treaties, including on tactical nuclear weapons.
There’s little chance that the crisis in Syria will end in anything but chaos if the U.S. and Russia — both of which worry about the rise of Islamic extremism in the country — can’t find a way to cooperate on the issue, said Fiona Hill, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, a Washington policy group.
“We can’t really avoid the Russians,” Hill said in a telephone interview. “In the global sweep of things, we have a lot of common concerns, but we approach each issue from very different perspectives.”
Some analysts tie the growing friction to Putin, who won a third term as president in March 2012 after four years as prime minister. He had been president from 2000 to 2008.
Clinton criticized Dec. 2011 elections, which increased then-Prime Minister Putin’s parliamentary majority, as “neither free nor fair.” Putin counterattacked by accusing her of instigating protests by giving opposition activists “a signal” to start their “active work” — an echo of the term “active measures,” which described political warfare by the KGB, the Soviet intelligence service in which Putin served.
“Putin is particularly sensitive about the West meddling in Russia’s domestic affairs,” Lilit Gevorgyan, an analyst in London at Englewood, Colorado-based IHS Global Insight, said in an e-mail. “Should Obama decide to seek another, more durable ‘reset’ to add to his achievements, Putin could be problematic.”
Indeed, in the months since Putin’s election, Russia has moved against U.S.-backed democracy promotion efforts. In October, officials ejected the U.S. Agency for International Development, a branch of the State Department, from the country, accusing it of trying to sway the Russian vote.
Two U.S. democracy promotion groups backed by Congress left Russia in November and December after the parliament broadened the definition of treason and began requiring non-governmental organizations that accept foreign money to register as “foreign agents.”
That move isn’t just about silencing dissent within Russia, said Thor Halvorssen, president of the New York-based Human Rights Foundation. It also sends a message to the U.S., which provides much of funding to Russian civil society groups.
To exercise real leverage over Russia, the U.S. will have to work “in collaboration with European allies to hold Russia to international trade and human rights standards,” William Pomeranz of the Woodrow Wilson Center’s Kennan Institute for Advanced Russian Studies in Washington wrote in a December policy paper.
Gevorgyan said the problem isn’t so much the state of the “reset” as the fact that the relationship “is in danger of becoming irrelevant to both.”
The March 2009 reset, begun by Clinton and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, was meant to repair relations soured by the 2008 war in Georgia, a former Soviet republic; the Bush administration’s 2001 decision to pull out of the 1972 Anti- Ballistic Missile Treaty; and disagreements over U.S. plans to install missile defenses in Poland and Romania, both former Soviet satellites.
Since 2009, Clinton and President Barack Obama worked with Russian leaders to pass the New START Treaty, a long-range nuclear arms reduction agreement. Russia has backed U.S. sanctions on Iran in the UN Security Council and canceled its exports of missiles to that country. Russia also facilitated the movement of supplies to U.S. and NATO troops in Afghanistan when Pakistan shut supply lines through its territory.
Those accomplishments have been paired, though, with setbacks.
In June 2010, the FBI arrested 10 members of an alleged Russian spy network. Putin became the first world leader to skip a G8 meeting when Obama hosted it in May 2011. That year, Russia began blocking U.S. attempts to sanction Syria’s Assad at the UN.
By February 2012, Clinton was publicly calling Russia “despicable” for its defense of the Syrian regime.
In October, Russia backed out of an agreement on nuclear, biological and chemical weapons security. On Dec. 14, Obama repealed a law that required Russia to certify its human rights record annually in order to have normal trade privileges with the U.S.
That trade action, sought by Russia, was coupled with the one that triggered the Russian bill banning adoptions. On the same day, Obama signed the Magnitsky Act, which would impose visa restrictions and an asset freeze on Russian officials allegedly linked to the death of anti-corruption lawyer Sergei Magnitsky and other human-rights abuses.
“Putin is furious with the Magnitsky bill,” Halvorssen said.
Russian leaders fear that other countries will follow suit, said Pavel Khodorkovsky, president of the New York-based Institute of Modern Russia, a policy group he founded to continue the democracy promotion work of his father Mikhail. Once Russia’s richest man as head of the Yukos Oil Co., he was jailed for fraud by Putin, and is now one of Russia’s most high- profile political prisoners.
“It’s a very, very real possibility,” Khodorkovsky said of the chance that Canada, the U.K. and other countries in Europe may take action. Many members of the Russian elite keep their assets outside the country to insulate themselves from shifting political winds, Khodorkovsky said in a telephone interview from Poland.