When it comes to Ukraine, the United States and European Union are stuck between a rock and a hard place. Russian troops are hunkering down in the recently occupied Crimean peninsula, showing no signs of retreat. The West, wary of involvement — especially military involvement — in yet another international conflict, has confined its rhetoric to talk of “costs” and economic sanctions.
One weapon in the United States’ economic arsenal is the 2012 Magnitsky Act, which allows the administration to sanction individual Russians. In particular, the law was aimed at those who were responsible for the detention, abuse, and death of Sergei Magnitsky, a Russian accountant and auditor. Magnitsky was tortured and murdered after accusing Russian officials of corruption and theft of taxpayer funds. Under the act, the Obama administration could target individuals by freezing their assets held in the United States and denying them visas.
The Obama administration opposed its passage in 2012, when it was approved with bipartisan supermajorities in both houses of Congress. Now, however, the law is one of the few weapons the American government is potentially willing to use against Russia.
At the time, the Obama administration was still pursuing its ill-fated attempt at a “reset” with Russia. Fearing to derail diplomatic ventures such as discussions regarding missile defense, the administration did not want to sour relations with Russia over human-rights issues.
Passage of the bill prompted immediate backlash from Russia, which subsequently banned the U.S. adoption of Russian babies and later barred 18 American citizens from entering the country, equivalent to the 18 Russians the U.S. marked as human-rights violators on the Magnistky list.
Despite Obama’s opposition to the law, Bill Browder — chief executive of Hermitage Capital, which employed Magnitsky, and a major proponent of the Magnitsky Act — recently told the Washington Post that this situation now is the perfect time to exercise the law and target Russian leaders. “You can’t just let Russia take over another country without consequences,” Browder told the Post, saying that targeting individuals as opposed to the country at large makes them “face real personal consequences which their commanders can’t protect them from.”
“This is exactly what the Magnitsky Act was created for,” he said.
— Alec Torres is a William F. Buckley Fellow at the National Review Institute.