Daragh McDowell argues against passage of the Magnitsky bill:
However, the utility of the Magnitsky bill in actually influencing Russian behavior is questionable, simply because Russia has long held that the internal affairs of sovereign states are not a legitimate concern of foreign policy. Indeed, attempting to influence Russian leaders to do something through punitive measures is a good way to get them not to do it [bold mine-DL]. Unfortunately, the political imperative to “do something” in the face of Russian human rights abuses has led many Western politicians to adopt coercive strategies that are doomed to failure.
McDowell goes beyond making the usual valid criticisms of trying to force a regime to change its behavior through outside pressure. He says that the horrible treatment Magnitsky and other regime critics suffered was an example of how the Russian leadership is losing control over its subordinates:
The greater likelihood is that these deaths, and others like them, are the result of the Kremlin losing effective control of elements within the Ministry of the Interior and other key sections of the government. This includes losing not only control over actions, but also the ability to punish those who step out of line. Putin’s hold on power depends on his ability to balance competing factions against one another. Comprehensive investigations into these crimes could throw the system out of equilibrium. Hence, a culture of impunity has developed within various factions, diluting the effectiveness of central control.
That suggests that the leadership is unable to make internal reforms that would satisfy supporters of the Magnitsky bill, which is another reason the legislation will be as ineffective as it will be harmful to U.S.-Russian relations. As Raymond Sontag wrote recently in The American Interest, the Magnitsky bill is typical of what is wrong with the conduct of U.S. foreign policy:
The Magnitsky Bill, however, is very unlikely to improve human rights in Russia, and it is also reflective of a broader problem affecting U.S. foreign policy: an impulse to engage in self-righteous posturing rather than in crafting serious strategy.
Sontag’s assessment confirms McDowell’s view that the Magnitsky case and others like are the product of systemic corruption in the Russian government, and corruption is so extensive that attempts to rein it in would create a significant internal power struggle:
Part of the reason for their hesitancy to tackle corruption earnestly is that they or people close to them benefit from it. There is evidence, for example, that top officials have been shielding the perpetrators in the Magnitsky case and allowing them to engage in theft of budget funds on a massive scale. The larger impediment to a real anticorruption campaign, though, is that corruption is so central to how law enforcement agencies work in Russia, and these agencies are so essential to how the Putin regime exercises power, that if the leadership did truly tackle the problem, it would find itself in a serious fight with a key constituency.
Passing the Magnitsky bill doesn’t make sense, unless it really is just an exercise in moral preening at the expense of improved U.S.-Russian relations.