On the one hand ...

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Kerry's Russia Problem

Eli Lake is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the senior national security correspondent for the Daily Beast and covered national security and intelligence for the Washington Times, the New York Sun and UPI.
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As Secretary of State John Kerry works to cajole his Russian counterpart to help end the war in Syria, his State Department is planning this week to ban more Russian nationals from the U.S. and its financial system for the murder of a Russian lawyer in 2009.

The pending sanctions illustrate how President Barack Obama's Russia policy is a balancing act: Even as the U.S. punishes President Vladimir Putin's aides and allies, it still pursues Russia's cooperation in the Middle East. The same week Kerry has been urging Russia to help end the war in Syria, a senior Treasury official let it slip that Putin is hiding a personal fortune from his own people.

This week, the pattern will continue. State Department officials tell me they expect to add five more names to what is known as the Magnitsky list, named for Russian lawyer Sergei Magnitsky, who was jailed after exposing Russia’s largest-known tax fraud and died in prison in 2009, after he was severely beaten. Russian courts have made a mockery of the investigation, leading Congress to pass a law in 2012 blacklisting the people responsible for Magnitsky's murder in the U.S.

On Thursday evening, the State Department informed Rep. Jim McGovern, a Massachusetts Democrat like Kerry, that it would be submitting the new names to Congress on Friday, according to congressional officials. But Kerry stopped the rollout on Friday morning. A senior State Department official told me Kerry had a few additional questions but anticipated the new names would be announced this week. Kerry was too late, though, for McGovern, who on Friday sent a news release congratulating the State Department for adding the new names to the list. A spokesman for McGovern told me Friday that his office then revoked the release because it was sent prematurely.

This was bad timing for Kerry. For the last week, the secretary has been trying to persuade Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov to play a constructive role at the Syrian peace talks in Geneva that began this weekend. In particular, Kerry has asked Russia to stop targeting Syrian civilians and members of the opposition who are not part of Islamic State.

At a news conference Tuesday, Lavrov revealed these private conversations and said he was baffled by Kerry's request to stop bombing the opposition. "When it is claimed that we bomb the wrong targets, we ask what targets should we bomb, but they refuse to tell us," Lavrov complained. "Frankly, I’m at a loss. This is not serious talk between serious grownup people."

Don't count Kerry out, though. He has pulled off the Russia balancing act before. In 2013, the secretary stumbled into an agreement with Russia to dismantle most of Syria's chemical weapons, after he blurted out the idea at a news conference. At the time, he accused Russia of covering up Syrian war crimes, and yet Kerry managed to get an agreement with Russia to force Syria to acknowledge and dispose of most of its chemical weapons. On the other hand, Russia began coordinating the air war it launched in Syria right after the nuclear negotiations with Iran were wrapped up this past July.

This time, Kerry is choosing his words carefully. In a video message he recorded over the weekend to the participants in the Geneva talks, the secretary didn't directly name the Russian government in his call to stop bombing Syrian civilians.

But the Magnitsky designations will get Russia's attention. When Congress passed the Magnitsky Act at the end of 2012, Russia's Duma responded by passing legislation banning U.S. families from adopting Russian children. Moscow recently issued Interpol notices for William Browder, the U.S. hedge fund manager who hired Magnitsky to investigate the paid back taxes the lawyer later discovered that Interior Ministry officials had stolen. Today there are only 34 individuals on the public Magnitsky list, 28 of whom are actually connected to the Magnitsky case. The others are on the list for different human-rights cases.

The Russians regard the U.S.’s actions on the Magnitsky case as an affront. Lavrov himself said at Tuesday's news conference in Moscow that the Magnitsky Act was a major factor leading to the cooling of U.S.-Russian relations during Obama's second term. Noting that passage of the Magnitsky Act preceded his country's invasion of Ukraine and its offer of safe haven to former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, Lavrov said the law was an "appalling" provocation.

Browder said it was important the U.S. was adding names to the Magnitsky list. But he also said there was still significant work to be done. "The Magnitsky family submitted 282 names to the State Department, there are 28 names on the Magnitsky list today and possibly there will be four more," he said. "They have only accomplished 10 percent of the goal here."

The fifth name on the list, according to McGovern's now-revoked release, is a Russian national implicated in the torture and murder of a Chechen human-rights activist. McGovern noted that in the release, saying that the addition of this individual was important because Congress intended for the Magnitsky list to be a way for the U.S. government to punish a broad array of Russian human-rights violations.

One such crime that has gained more attention in the last week is the radiation poisoning of former Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko in 2006. Last week, an official British inquiry into the murder -- which took place in the U.K. -- blamed Russia's intelligence service for the deed and concluded that Putin had likely ordered the hit.

State Department officials tell me the new Magnitsky designations have nothing to do with the Litvinenko case. But the precedent is set nonetheless for future administrations to use the Magnitsky process to cast a wide net.

This sort of thing should worry Putin’s henchmen. As long as he is president, he enjoys sovereign immunity from things such as the Magnitsky law. This shield does not exist for other oligarchs, though. As Browder and others work to get other countries to pass their own Magnitsky laws, these oligarchs will have fewer places to hide their fortunes. Meanwhile, Kerry will be seeking to strike the balance again: getting Lavrov to help end the atrocities Russia has enabled in Syria, all while the State Department sanctions five Russians for smaller atrocities they committed in their own country.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Eli Lake at elake1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Brooke Sample at bsample1@bloomberg.net