U.S. trade-human rights link tests Obama-Russia ties

Sat Dec 8, 2012 8:52am EST
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By Steve Gutterman

MOSCOW (Reuters) - The U.S. Senate's passage of legislation to punish Russians who violate human rights is the first big test of Vladimir Putin and Barack Obama's resolve to improve relations since each won elections.

Obama, who launched a "reset" in relations with Russia less than four years ago, is likely to sign the law even though Moscow sees it as "aggressively unfriendly". Damage to U.S.-Russian relations is all but inevitable.

But there are signs that Putin, who won the presidency despite the biggest protests of his 13-year rule, may want to put the bad blood of a campaign in which he whipped up anti-American sentiment behind him.

"I do not think that this will lead to a serious crisis in Russian-American relations," said Dmitry Trenin, director of the Carnegie Moscow Centre think tank.

"(Putin) does not intend to make relations worse, and for this reason the effects of this legislation will be limited," Trenin said.

The Senate approved the "Magnitsky Act" as part of a broader bill to lift a Cold War-era restriction and grant Russia "permanent normal trade relations" (PNTR), a move that in other circumstances would have been celebrated in both capitals.

A month after Obama's re-election, it could have been the cap on a period during which he signed a landmark nuclear arms deal with Moscow and helped usher Russia into the World Trade Organization (WTO) after an 18-year membership bid.

Instead, Moscow is furious over the human rights portion of the bill, an unmistakable message to Putin of displeasure with the treatment of Russians who dare challenge the authorities.   Continued...

U.S. President Barack Obama (R) shakes hands with Russia's President Vladimir Putin in Los Cabos, Mexico, June 18, 2012. REUTERS/Jason Reed