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Russian Reset


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More than ten years ago, President George Bush looked Vladimir Putin in the eye and was "able to get a sense of his soul." It was an odd quote from the beginning, but by the end of the Bush administration, relations with Russia had soured over Putin's grim human rights record and close friendships with some of the world's worst leaders.

Every new President enters the office with a great sense of self-importance and belief in their own capabilities. It's hard to not to when you've just been elected "the leader of the free world." Barack Obama made it apparent that he thought many of our recent disagreements with other nations were caused by the poor foreign policy of his predecessor.

Hillary Clinton, as Secretary of State would present the Russian's with a ceremonial "reset" button as a symbol that old grievances should be forgotten. Of course, the word reset was mistranslated and read "overcharged" instead.

At the time, the gaffe was easy to laugh at. Today, it seems that the effort to reset relations with Russia was naïve and dangerous.

Our relationship with Russia has soured even more since 2009. Five years after thinking our differences were a matter or personality, President Obama declined to attend the opening of the Winter Olympics sending notable gay and lesbian Americans in his place. Americans supporting gay rights have only recently found out what proponents of religious and speech freedom have known for a long time: the Russian government abuses citizens that don't comport with its notion of a model citizen.

In Vladimir Putin's nation, those who don't support the party line and don't support the strict values of the Russian Orthodox church are routinely discriminated against. Officially, Russians have freedom of religion. In reality, minority religious groups find it difficult to meet together and practice their faith.

In September of 2012, the Holy Trinity Pentecostal Church in Moscow was plowed to the ground as police stood by and watched. This is a church that had existed since the Soviet days. Forced out of their original building in the 1990s, the church continued to meet in a temporary building in the suburbs.

The congregation attempted to build a permanent structure but were routinely denied. They couldn't even hook their existing building up to water or electricity. Meanwhile, hundreds of new Russian Orthodox churches were granted building permits.

Press freedom is virtually non-existent in Russia. All significant media outlets are controlled by Putin and journalists working outside official channels are constantly threatened.

The Putin administration is notoriously corrupt. In fact, there are estimates that as much as $30 billion of the more than $50 billion spent on the Sochi games may have been lost to theft, graft, and bribery.

Auditor Sergei Magnitsky provided information to the press exposing a massive fraud perpetrated by politicians, the police, and the Russian mafia in 2007. He was arrested in 2008 and held for 11 months without a trial. After becoming ill, he was refused treatment and died in prison.

In 2012, Congress passed the Magnitsky Act to punish those responsible for the death of this whistleblower. Eighteen officials have been subjected to sanctions including the freezing of assets and visa bans. The Russian government reacted to this legislation by hurting Russian children and banning adoptions from Americans.

The administration has the power to extend these sanctions and last year had indicated that between 10 and 20 more corrupt officials would be added to the list. Shockingly, last December the State Department announced there would be no additions.

The Russians openly continue their support of some of the world's worst actors: Iran, Syria, and Venezuela. They continue to perpetrate grave abuses against their own citizens. Meanwhile, those closest to the center of this corruption continue to benefit. Many of those in the highest circles of power have made billions of dollars while in office. They send their children abroad to Europe and America for schooling.

Congress gave the President the power to do more than make a statement. By now he should know that Putin isn't much interested in civil dialogue. He should use the authority of the Magnitsky Act to punish officials known to be human rights abusers.

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