The Obama Administration has put much stock in its "reset" policy with Russia. Under "reset", the United States did not publicly criticize Russia for human rights violations and other practices that are inimical to democratic standards.
In response for such "realism", the administration hoped to gain Russian support on such issues as Iran and North Korea, as well as an alternative supply route to Afghanistan. This policy satisfied the Russian leadership to the extent that President Dmitry Medvedev has already endorsed Barack Obama for a second term in office.
This week the reset was looking a bit tattered. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton informed Congress that the US was imposing visa restrictions on Russian officials connected with the death of Sergei Magnitsky, a lawyer for Hermitage Capital.
Hermitage Capital was a seed fund started by banker Edmond Safra and Bill Browder (ironically, the grandson of the former American Communist Party leader Earl Browder) for investments in Russia. Magnitsky charged Russian police officials and bankers with tax fraud and the police turned around and charged Magnitsky with the same crime. During his remand he was denied medical treatment and as result he died at the age of 37. Browder has launched a crusade to punish the guilty.
Actually, the Administration announced the measure to head off a more comprehensive bill in Congress. The Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act would not only blacklist the 60 police officials involved in that case, but also those involved in the murders of Russian reporters and human rights workers.
The State Department warned the law makers that the passage of the bill could jeopardize important American interests that required cooperation with Russia.
The Russians were not amused as visa blacklisting is a tactic frequently employed against Haitian or African dictators, but not exercised against states that regard themselves as great powers. The measure is viewed as "attempts to interfere in the course of the investigation and pressure judicial bodies", hence inadmissible.
President Dmitry Medvedev ordered an independent investigation into the Magnitsky case when he sensed the diplomatic fallout. This effort has silenced criticism within the European Union but has not produced the same calming effect in the United States.
In the Russian Duma, nationalist deputies suggested that Russia could retaliate by restricting entry, freezing assets and banning business deals by foreigners suspected to have violated the rights of Russian citizens.
In another sign of growing tension, Russia's ambassador to NATO, Dmitry Rogozin, called Republican senators John Kyl of Arizona and Mark Kirk of Illinois radicals and "monsters of the Cold War." After meeting with them he came away convinced that if Barack Obama was defeated, US-Russian cooperation would collapse.