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Looking Beyond Magnitsky Lists, Kremlin Eyes Putin-Obama Meetings

  • James Brooke

Russian President Vladimir Putin, left, listens to Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov at Kremlin ceremony, Moscow, April 15, 2013.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, left, listens to Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov at Kremlin ceremony, Moscow, April 15, 2013.

Russian President Vladimir Putin had a “positive” meeting in Moscow Monday with a top Obama Administration envoy, a Kremlin aide said.

Foreign policy advisor Yuri Ushakov said that he and President Putin talked about trade, missile defense and nuclear arms cuts with U.S. National Security Advisor Thomas Donilon.

Russia-American relations have been going through their coldest stretch since the Cold War era. The Kremlin accuses Washington of meddling in its internal affairs; Washington says the Kremlin wants a foreign enemy to build domestic support.

Now, with spring in the air in Russia’s capital, analysts say the meeting sends a signal that the Kremlin wants to move beyond the issue of visa black lists that has soured relations since December.

Dmitry Suslov, a U.S.-Russia relations professor at Moscow’s Higher School of Economics, said the Kremlin wants to tone down the polemics surrounding the prison death of Sergei Magnitsky, the lawyer for an American hedge fund.

"The negative impact of the Magnitsky affair will be fading down in weeks and months to come,” Suslov predicted. "Ultimately, this negative impact could be overcome after the personal meeting of the two presidents, Putin and Obama, presumably this summer."

Last Friday, Washington issued a list of 18 officials banned from visiting the United States. The Kremlin was apparently relieved that it contained only mid-level names and less than 10 percent of the number of names that some American congressmen wanted.

Nevertheless, the Kremlin retaliated with its own list of 18 mid-level American officials banned from visiting Russia.

On Saturday, Duma hardliners called the list war “a hard blow” to U.S.-Russia relations. But they may be out of step with the new line from the Kremlin.

On Monday, state-run TV did not rebroadcast hardline comments made Sunday by Presidential Spokesman Dmitry Peskov. Instead, state-run TV aired Peskov’s comments calling President Putin “a man of compromise.” Peskov said that Putin could compromise as long as no red lines are crossed affecting Russia’s security.

Russia’s government is looking ahead to Putin’s meeting two months from now at the Group of 8 meeting in Northern Ireland. After that, the Russians are hoping that President Obama will come to St. Petersburg in September for the Group of 20 meeting that Putin will host.

On Monday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said that after meetings with Donilon and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry in recent days, he believes the Obama Administration wants to work with Russia.

"I have heard from Tom Donilon and John Kerry that they understand well the negative impact of a whole range of factors on Russia-U.S. relations," including, Lavrov said on national television Monday, the "Magnitsky List."

Suslov’s reading is that the Obama Administration is putting a higher priority on ensuring Russian cooperation in Afghanistan, North Korea and Iran — and a lower priority on building democracy in Russia.

"This policy has been successful because the Obama Administration is ready to take, to absorb these rules of the game,” Suslov said, referring to a series of steps the Kremlin has taken over the last six months to cut U.S. government programs and influence in Russia. “The Obama [administration] does not make big trouble over the authoritarian trend."

Human rights defenders say they are disappointed by what they call a small list of Russian officials hit with visa and financial bans. They say the list can grow, and they note that the European Parliament is considering adopting its own Magnitsky list of banned Russian officials for Europe.

"The Russians have made clear that, far from being interested in investigating the murder of Sergei Magnitsky, they are determined, on the contrary, to defend those responsible for his death — and they are ready to do it at the highest government level,” said American author and Russia expert David Satter, speaking from Amsterdam Monday after two weeks in Russia.

But the Kremlin may mute its reaction. Its priority now seems to be achieving results at the two Putin-Obama meetings scheduled for the next five months.

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