US-Russia relations took a steep turn for the worse at the end of last year. On 28 December, Russian President Vladimir Putin signed into law a ban on adoptions by Americans. The law is named for Dima Yakovlev, a Russian toddler adopted by US parents who died from heat stroke after being left in a car in the state of Virginia.
"There are lots of places in the world where living standards are higher than they are here," Putin said, brushing aside criticism that the law would deny some Russian orphans the chance for a much better life in the US. "Are we going to send all our children there? Perhaps we should move there ourselves?"
Washington said the US has repeatedly made clear, both in private and in public, its deep concerns about the bill passed by the Russian Parliament.
The new law was due to take effect on 1 January. Putin's spokesman Dmitry Peskov said earlier that six children whose adoption has already been decided in court will go to the US, while 46 other children whose adoption was still underway must stay in Russia.
US families took in 45,112 Russian orphans from 1999 to 2011, according to the US State Department. According to UNICEF, there are about 740,000 children not in parental custody in Russia while about 18,000 Russians are on the waiting list to adopt a child.
The legislation will also outlaw some non-governmental organisations that receive US funding and impose a visa ban and asset freeze on Americans accused of violating the rights of Russians abroad.
The Yakovlev act is seen as a response to the Sergei Magnitsky bill, calling for Russian officials involved in gross human rights abuses to be banned from entering the US or making use of the US banking system. The Magnitsky Act is named after a Russian lawyer working for a US hedge fund, who died in a Moscow jail in 2009 after blowing the whistle on what he claimed was a €178-million police embezzlement scheme. A Moscow court has cleared the only prison official accused over Magnitsky’s death of any wrongdoing.
Putin responded to the US Magnitsky Act by accusing the US of hypocrisy, noting human rights abuses in Iraq, Afghanistan and at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.
US-based human rights organisation Freedom House called the Yakovlev law an "attack against one of the most vulnerable groups in the Russian society".
Stephen Sestanovich of Columbia’s School of International and Public Affairs told New Europe on 2 January that “the adoption ban tries to turn the Magnitsky bill from an elite issue into a populist one. It's a brilliant but very silly gesture”. “There were a few Russian commentators saying that only the poor orphans would suffer as a result of the ban, but that didn't slow the vote,” he said.
The Obama administration, however, still values the country’s relationship with Russia. The US relies heavily on overland routes through Russia to ship supplies to military units in Afghanistan, and it has enlisted Russia’s help in containing Iran’s nuclear programme.
Moreover, US President Barack Obama on 20 December formally granted permanent normal trade relations to Russia, following congressional action that cleared the way for him to remove a Cold War-era vestige on trade in order to ensure that US companies share the full benefits of Russia's recent entry in the World Trade Organization (WTO).
Asked how the Russian adoption ban will affect ties with the US, Jeffrey Mankoff, Fellow and Deputy Director of the Russia & Eurasia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington DC, told New Europe on 2 January that “the ban is unfortunate, because both Moscow and Washington agree that improving ties between the respective societies is among the most important ways of moving beyond the old thinking that continues to define US-Russian relations. The main victims of the ban in the United States will be American families seeking to adopt Russian children. They—and their representatives in Congress—will come away from this whole episode with a much more negative view of Russia, which will further shrink the constituency of people in the US who favour improved ties with Russia”.
Sestanovich said the adoption ban will not have much effect on Russian-American relations overall. “Our diplomats will still talk to their diplomats about Syria and Afghanistan,” he said. “But it has created a nasty new mood that may last.”
Meanwhile, US-Russian business ties are continuing. On 2 January, Putin signed a law on issuing visas for foreign businessmen valid for up to five years. The law was adopted by Russia’s lower house of parliament, the State Duma, on 19 December and later approved by the upper house, the Federation Council, on 26 December.
Mankoff explained that some of the most helpful steps Washington and Moscow have taken in the last few years are in low-profile areas such as visa facilitation, cultural co-operation, and adoptions. “The Russian government’s unfortunate decision threatens to overshadow much of the progress those agreements represent,” he said.