The Obama administration’s “reset” of its relationship with Russia has largely failed, and in his second term, the president must press Moscow harder on human rights, which are under threat from President Vladimir Putin, Russian opposition leaders and Kremlin critics say.
“The idea [of a reset] was absolutely great; unfortunately, the results have not been encouraging,” Mikhail Kasyanov, who served as prime minister of Russia from 2000 until 2004, said in an interview during a visit to Washington last week.
“In the beginning, the [Obama] administration mostly focused on global security aspects but forgot about human rights,” said Mr. Kasyanov, who is co-chairman of the Republican Party of Russia-People’s Freedom Party.
At the 2009 Group of 20 summit in London, President Obama and his Russian counterpart, Dmitry Medvedev, released a joint statement announcing a “fresh” start in U.S.-Russian relations. Vice President Joseph R. Biden spoke of a “reset” in the relationship, but ties between the two countries have become strained by differences over missile defense, human rights and the war in Syria since Mr. Putin succeeded Mr. Medvedev last year.
Mr. Kasyanov said the U.S. must send a clear message to Mr. Putin that he will not get a “free ticket” on human rights violations.
“There is no trust between Putin’s regime and the administration in the U.S., and without trust, it is not possible to resolve problems,” he said. “The problem is the nature of the Russian regime. There can be no progress or positive movement while Putin’s regime is in power.”
Pavel Khodorkovsky, president of the Institute of Modern Russia, said that, because of “the very straightforward realpolitik approach to the bilateral relations, we now don’t have a stable foundation to develop the relationship further because the short- to midterm goals of diplomacy have been achieved.”
“In the past five years, we have seen a [U.S.] policy [toward Russia] that has largely made it difficult to uphold human rights and at least make sure that they are not ignored,” he said.
Mr. Khodorkovsky’s father, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, was once Russia’s wealthiest man. He was arrested in 2003, convicted of money laundering and embezzlement, and thrown in prison. Amnesty International describes him as a prisoner of conscience.
In 2009, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton presented Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov with a red “reset” button symbolic of the Obama administration’s plans to set bilateral ties on an new course.
After a meeting with Mrs. Clinton’s successor, John F. Kerry, in Berlin last month, Mr. Lavrov told Russian news agencies that he hopes the Obama administration will “try to play a more constructive role” in foreign policy.
The Obama administration is likely to be less engaged with Russia in its second term, some analysts say.
“We don’t know what the reset of the reset will look like,” said Lilia Shevtsova, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Moscow. “Maybe it will be a change of software, maybe it will simply be the same transactional relationship. But because Obama is so engaged in domestic problems, the Middle East, Syria, the rise of China, Russia may be put on the back burner.”
The souring of the U.S.-Russian relationship has coincided with Mr. Putin’s third term as president.
Since Mr. Putin returned to the Kremlin in May, Russia’s parliament, dominated by the pro-Putin United Russia party, has enacted laws that criminalize dissent, impose restrictions on civil society and require nongovernmental organizations that engage in public advocacy and accept foreign funding to register as foreign agents.
Human Rights Watch said Mr. Putin has unleashed “the worst political crackdown in Russia’s post-Soviet history.”
Tensions between Washington and Moscow came to a head in December, when Mr. Putin signed legislation that bans Americans from adopting Russian orphans. The law was in retaliation to the Magnitsky Act, signed into law by Mr. Obama earlier that month, that denies U.S. visas to and freezes the assets of blacklisted Russian officials suspected of involvement in the tortures and killings of whistleblowers in Russia.
The Magnitsky law is named for Sergei Magnitsky, a Russian lawyer who claimed to have exposed a web of corruption involving Russian officials. He was arrested on charges of tax fraud and died in a Moscow prison in 2009. In a case that is without precedent in Russia, officials in Moscow will proceed Monday with the posthumous trial of Magnitsky.
Dmitry Gudkov, who represents A Just Russia party in the state Duma, was one of eight members of Russia’s lower house of parliament to vote against the bill that banned U.S. adoptions.
The Putin administration is very interested in an image makeover, he said. “The Russian government spent a lot of money on PR, but after the Pussy Riot case, after the passage of the [anti-adoption] law, I think Russian authorities demonstrated that they don’t share common values.”
Three members of the female punk rock band were jailed in August for a raucous anti-Putin performance inside a Moscow cathedral. One band member was released in October.
Mr. Khodorkovsky credits Congress with putting human rights on the agenda of the U.S.-Russian relationship.
“The activism of the U.S. Congress and its members’ devotion to see the Magnitsky Act implemented in the same spirit as the law has been enacted carries a very strong message to the executive branch of the government,” he said.
The Obama administration initially opposed the Magnitsky legislation.
The State Department is expected to publish the first Magnitsky list of blacklisted Russian officials by mid-April.
“We hope it will not be just empty words, but actual action,” said Mr. Kasyanov.
Mr. Gudkov said the Obama administration can promote “real democracy” in Russia by helping Mr. Putin in his much-touted fight against corruption and money laundering.
Mr. Gudkov isn’t convinced that Mr. Putin is serious about this fight, but said that if the U.S. is seen helping the Russian president, he will be forced to act against corrupt officials, and that would create a rift among the ruling elite.
Mr. Kasyanov, meanwhile, said he hopes the Obama administration has become wiser to the ways of the Putin administration. “We believe that the [Obama] administration is now more mature in terms of understanding what Russia is about [and] in this term will perform effectively,” he said.