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the russian front: Putins Colossal Anti-Magnitsky Blunder

Published: January 16, 2013 (Issue # 1742)


President Vladimir Putins initial response tothe Magnitsky Act was right onthe money: toaccuse theU.S. government ofmonumental hypocrisy byfocusing attention onWashingtons record oftorture andillegal rendition ofterrorism suspects. That reaction also had thetit-for-tat structural symmetry that is standard insuch cases.

More important, it allowed theKremlin totake territory it had not occupied since Soviet days: themoral high ground. Back then, Soviet officials would counter U.S. criticism ofhuman rights violations with thestandard question, And what about your blacks? Historian Martin Kenner even contends that progress inthe civil rights movement was accelerated bythe criticism fromMoscow, asort ofsocial justice race running parallel tothe arms andspace races.

Apart fromsymmetry andhigh ground, there was also anexcellent contextual reason toattack theU.S. forits practices oftorture andrendition. Thesubject is very much inthe air again because U.S. President Barack Obama has nominated John Brennan, currently his chief counter-terrorism adviser, tobe thenew CIA director. Four years ago, that nomination proved impossible because ofBrennans favorable remarks about rendition andwaterboarding. Inaddition, thenew film Zero Dark Thirty detailing themanhunt forOsama bin Laden was controversial even before its recent release because its violent opening scenes ofwaterboarding suggest that this torture led toactionable intelligence. This was anideal moment forPutins attack toresonate with U.S. popular cultural as well as onCapitol Hill.

Asignificant percentage ofAmericans, especially among those who voted forObama inNovember, are still angered bythe damage that former President George W. Bush andVice President Dick Cheney caused tothe U.S. global image. If Putins idea was tostick it tothe U.S., he couldnt have found abetter means andmoment todo it.

Yet Putins big mistake was when he turned his initial symmetric response intoa foolish asymmetric one. Bydenying Americans theright toadopt Russian children, thereasoning must have been some combination ofThe Americans are sentimental, thisll hurt them! andWho do they think they are, coming here andshopping forour blond, blue-eyed darlings!

Inthe end, ofcourse, it is Russias own orphans who will suffer themost. Theold Russian saying, Beat your own so others will fear you, was probably not designed with kids inmind.

Patriarch Kirill has called onRussians toadopt more children. Its agood idea. This is also amoment where theopposition or spontaneous groups that are changing Russia slowly fromthe bottom up could come forward with amass adoption program. But it seems that they, like Putin, are also letting arare andvaluable opportunity slip by.

What makes this whole business even odder is how adroitly Putin dealt with French actor Gerard Depardieu, grabbing world headlines andchanging theperception ofRussia as aplace where artists like thepunk group Pussy Riot are persecuted tomaking it arather safe haven forinternational movie stars fighting forreasonable income tax rates.

Yet only time will tell whether Putins play onDepardieu was smart. It may turn out that, like many post-Soviet people, Putin has thrown out thedialectical baby with theMarxist bath water. Dialectics stressed that things inevitably turned intotheir opposite. Russian citizen Depardieu may yet end up onRed Square protesting thearrest ofsome fellow Russian artist, asight theworld media would gobble up. Stay tuned.

Richard Lourie is theauthor ofSakharov: ABiography andThe Autobiography ofJoseph Stalin.





 


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