MOSCOW – What happened to the "reset"?
U.S.-Russian ties have again plunged into acrimony amid disputes ranging from disagreement on Syria to Russian President Vladimir Putin's clampdown on dissent.
A U.S. bill intended to lift Cold War-era trade restrictions but also containing sanctions against Russian officials accused of rights abuses has become the latest flashpoint, with Moscow venting its outrage and threatening a quid pro quo.
While U.S.-Russian ties haven't yet plunged to the lows seen during George W. Bush's presidency, a senior Russian lawmaker warned Friday that the legislation approved by the Senate could be a prologue to an even deeper crisis.
Alexei Pushkov, the Kremlin-connected head of the Foreign Affairs committee in the lower house of Russia's parliament, said that Moscow was particularly annoyed by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton's pledge this week to oppose Russia's efforts to create alliances of post-Soviet nations as an attempt to "re-Sovietize the region."
"If the U.S. administration wants to have a kind of geopolitical contest with the Russian Federation on the post-Soviet space, I think that the (trade) law will be just the first step in a new crisis, and a serious crisis between Moscow and Washington," Pushkov told The Associated Press.
Moscow's concerns about what it perceives as American meddling into its home turf contributed to a sharp downturn in U.S.-Russian relations under Bush, which hit their lowest point during the August 2008 Russian-Georgian war.
After announcing a policy of "reset" in relations with Moscow in 2009, President Barack Obama signed the landmark New START nuclear arms pact with Russia and encouraged cooperation in other areas. But U.S.-Russian relations later worsened again over Russia's support for the embattled Syrian regime, U.S. missile defense plans and Putin's crackdown on dissent.
Amid the growing strain, Putin accused the U.S. State Department of fomenting massive protests in Moscow against his re-election to a third presidential term in March. The anti-American rhetoric was followed by action.
In September, Moscow ordered an end to the U.S. Agency for International Development's two decades of work in Russia, saying that the agency was using its money to influence elections — a claim the U.S. denied. And in another sign of increasing friction with Washington, the Kremlin announced in October that it had no intention of automatically extending a 20-year old deal with the United States to help secure Russia's nuclear stockpiles.
The bill approved by the U.S. Senate on Thursday is named after Russian lawyer Sergei Magnitsky, who was arrested by officials whom he had accused of a $230 million tax fraud.
He was repeatedly denied medical treatment, and died in 2009 after almost a year in jail following a severe beating by guards. Russian rights groups accused the Kremlin of failing to prosecute those responsible.
U.S. State Department spokesman Mark Toner hailed the bill, saying it will offer Americans greater access to the Russian market and adding that "we share Congress' goals of promoting respect for human rights in Russia."
Russia's Foreign Ministry called the U.S. Senate vote a "show in the theater of the absurd." It warned that Russia will respond to the new legislation in kind, adding that the U.S. will have to take the blame for the worsening of U.S.-Russian ties.
Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov told Russian media that he warned Clinton during their meeting in Dublin that Russia "will ban entry to the Americans who are in fact guilty of violating human rights."
Pushkov, the senior lawmaker in the Russian lower house, said it will respond to the Senate move with legislation that would impose travel restrictions and an assets freeze on U.S. citizens accused of human rights violations. He told the AP that lawmakers are considering two versions of the bill.
One would target U.S. citizens accused of violating the rights of Russian citizens in the United States, while a broader version would be aimed at U.S. citizens accused of rights violations in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and other nations.
"The United States is involved in massive and a well-proven violation of human rights all over the world," Pushkov said.
On a conciliatory note, he added that Moscow believes that the Obama administration still wants to enhance cooperation with Russia and voiced hope that relations could eventually improve.
But Pushkov also described Clinton's claim that the Russian-led regional groupings represented an attempt to restore the Soviet empire as a "very belligerent" statement. And he said it is an example Washington should avoid repeating it if it is serious about a "reset."
Clinton made the statement before sitting down for talks with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov to discuss the Syrian crisis — another key point of tension between Moscow and Washington.
Washington accuses Moscow of propping up Bashar Assad's regime despite its bloody crackdown on an uprising that began in March 2011. Russia and China have used their veto power at the U.N. Security Council three times to block sanctions against Assad's government, and Moscow has continued to provide Assad with weapons despite strong U.S. protests.
At a meeting in Dublin that also involved the U.N. peace envoy for Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi, Clinton and Lavrov agreed to support a new mediation effort Brahimi would lead.
Despite Russian leaders' angry rhetoric, the Kremlin is unlikely to take any strong anti-U.S. action for fear of causing an even bigger strain in relations, Sergei Alexashenko, an economist who was a deputy chief of Russia's Central Bank, told Ekho Moskvy radio late Thursday.
Many observers say Moscow's worst fear is that European Union nations will follow the U.S. and pass similar laws. British authorities already have reportedly compiled a list of 60 Russian officials barred from entry over their alleged involvement in Magnitsky's death.
Alexei Navalny, Russia's leading anti-corruption whistleblower and opposition leader, wrote in his blog that officials' anger against the U.S. legislation stems from fear of losing their assets.
"Don't confuse the interests of Russia and Russian officials' fear for their corruption savings in foreign banks," he said. "The Magnitsky act is absolutely pro-Russian. It is aimed at scoundrels who stole 5.4 billion rubles, laundered it abroad, then tortured and killed a Russian citizen."