By Lucian Kim, Special to CNN
U.S.-Russian relations took a new hit in the last days of 2012 when President Vladimir Putin signed a law prohibiting Americans from adopting Russian children. The ban was the Kremlin’s promised “asymmetrical response” to a U.S. blacklist of alleged Russian human rights violators. Given the dismal condition of Russian orphanages and the willingness of Americans to adopt sick or disabled children, the measure ended up looking not just disproportionate, but cruel and spiteful.
Putin gave his justification for the adoption ban during his annual press conference in December. It was the indifference of American officials toward the fate of abused adopted Russian children, he explained, as well as the attempt by the U.S. to spread its legal jurisdiction around the globe.
“What’s normal about being humiliated?” Putin lectured a critical Russian journalist. “Do you like it? Are you a sadomasochist? Our country must not be humiliated.”
The issue of adoptions has overshadowed relations between the former Cold War rivals for years, with the Kremlin incensed about the 19 Russian children who died because of neglectful or abusive adoptive parents in the U.S. More than 60,000 Russian children have been adopted by Americans over the past two decades, and an arduously negotiated bilateral agreement, designed to address Russian concerns, just went into effect in November. As of January 1, it is null and void.
The adoption ban says more about Putin than anything the U.S. did or didn’t do.
President Obama announced a “reset” in relations after taking office four years ago. Critics have since trashed the policy as ineffectual and overly friendly. Yet the dirty little secret of the reset is that it wasn’t a new start at all – it was simply the return to the diplomatic routine of bows and curtsies after George W. Bush’s unilateralism had run roughshod over Russian sensibilities.
Obama was less interested in turning Russia into an ally than preventing a testy Kremlin from obstructing his foreign policy goals of stabilizing Afghanistan, containing Iran’s nuclear program and advancing nuclear disarmament. Obama found a willing partner in Putin’s protégé, then President Dmitry Medvedev, who took to American innovations such as the iPhone and Twitter with childlike wonder.
The reset’s mistake was that it was premised on the naïve belief that Medvedev was an independent political actor and Putin’s successor. When it became official that Medvedev was merely a stand-in to help Putin avoid a constitutional limit on three consecutive presidential terms, the reset was as good as over.
The adoption ban is only the culmination in a series of setbacks in the U.S-Russian relationship. After demonstrators took to the streets of Moscow to protest over election fraud in December 2011, Putin blamed the United States for fomenting unrest. When Michael McFaul, the architect of the reset, arrived in Moscow as U.S. ambassador a year ago, he was greeted with unprecedented harassment by state media and Kremlin-sponsored youth groups.
Putin’s return to the presidency in May marked a hardening of xenophobic, reactionary positions inside Russia. Putin snubbed Obama by refusing to make his first foreign visit to the U.S. Hastily passed legislation gave law enforcement agencies a new arsenal of weapons to wield against domestic critics. In the fall, USAID, the State Department’s development arm, was kicked out of Russia, and the Kremlin withdrew from the Nunn-Lugar program to reduce nuclear, chemical and biological weapons threats.
The ostensible reason to ban adoptions by American parents was Obama’s signing of the so-called Sergei Magnitsky Act, named after the Moscow lawyer who died in pre-trial detention after accusing law enforcement officers of a $230 million tax fraud. Given the already poor state of relations, the White House wasn’t enthusiastic about the act, which sanctions Russian officials suspected of human rights violations. Ironically, Obama signed the law as it was attached to a bill normalizing trade ties with Russia.
Putin could easily have ignored the largely symbolic U.S. law. But any critical mention of Russia in Washington only serves Kremlin propaganda about America’s hostile intent. Putin needs the U.S. as an enemy, because it builds him up as a brave leader and allows him to crack down on internal dissent. The regimes in Iran, Venezuela or North Korea are no different in their dependence on U.S. censure – the harsher, the better.
The real threat to the Kremlin is not that the U.S. will invade, but that it will forget about Russia. The fear of being forgotten is the reason behind saber-rattling over American missile defense or the flailing of the Russian veto in the U.N. Security Council when it comes to Syria.
Putin’s pet project is a “Eurasian Union” with former Soviet republics to strengthen Russia’s position in the world. The problem is that the Kremlin no longer has the imperial clout of the czars or the ideological zeal of the communists to make lasting partnerships attractive. Today, Russia has no allies except for Belarus, Armenia and Kazakhstan, three neighbors that keep friendly relations in the absence of any better alternatives. Putin plays up China as a “strategic partner,” though the Chinese view Russia as little more than a supplier of raw resources.
Russia is still grappling with the loss of empire after the Soviet Union collapsed as a superpower in 1991. For lack of any new big idea to help unify the country, the Kremlin offers clichés about nefarious American plots and foreign agents sabotaging Russia from within.
The decision to prohibit adoptions by Americans shows the paucity of options at Putin’s disposal. How the ban will now earn Russia respect and put an end to perceived humiliation is anybody’s guess.