You’ve got to hand it to Vladimir Putin and his pals. They really know how to stick it to Uncle Sam. Not.

On Friday the Obama administration reluctantly complied with the Sergei Magnitsky Act, a law passed by Congress and named in honor of a Russian lawyer who did not receive adequate medical care and died in prison after trying to expose widespread governmental corruption. The act compels the administration to bar from entry into the U.S. and from the use of our banking system any Russian officials responsible for Magnitsky’s mistreatment. The administration duly complied by barring some two dozen individuals, some of them in secret, including, it has been reported, the Russian henchman who now serves as president of Chechnya.

In reply Moscow announced it was barring 18 Americans who were supposedly responsible for human-rights abuses of their own from traveling to Russia. And the headline-makers among those targeted are… David Addington and John Yoo, of Global War on Terror fame. Perhaps Putin doesn’t quite get the American political process, which has something called political parties. He doesn’t seem to understand that Addington and Yoo are prominent Republicans. He could demand that they be sent to Siberia and few tears would be shed among their political adversaries who now occupy the White House.

Putin strikes marginally closer to home by barring Preet Bharara, the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, who is at least an Obama appointee. His sin? He prosecuted Victor Bout, the notorious international arms dealer from Russia. Only in Putin’s never-never land is the prosecution of a merchant of death a human-rights issue.

In any case I doubt that Addington, Yoo, Bharara or anyone else on the list is particularly perturbed to be barred from visiting Russia which, last time I checked, was not exactly a popular vacation destination. Preventing prominent Russians from visiting the U.S. and using our banking system–which could ripple out to bar them from Europe as well–is, by contrast, a real penalty given the proclivity of the Russian elites to stash their ill-gotten assets in the West.

No doubt targeting the Russian human-rights abusers required overcoming lots of objections from the State Department, whose officials are typically worried that such steps will hurt their “relationships” with Russian officials and prevent the U.S. from winning Russian concessions on supposedly more important issues such as North Korea and Iran.

In reality, Putin is not going to make any concessions to the U.S. anyway unless he thinks they are in his interest. (This, for example, is why he is allowing limited use of Russian territory to help supply NATO forces in Afghanistan–he doesn’t want a Taliban takeover any more than we do.)

And there is no more important issue in our relationship with Russia than Putin’s treatment of his own populace. As long as Russia has a despotic government–as, alas, it has today, notwithstanding Putin’s pretense of holding elections–it will never be on good terms with the U.S. Just as in the days of the Cold War, it is vitally important that the U.S. show that it stands with the Russian people and against their increasingly unpopular overlords.

Only by championing freedom and human rights in Russia will we have any chance of working truly harmoniously with its government–not the current quasi-criminal regime, needless to say, but, one hopes, a future government that is truly elected by, and accountable to, its own people.

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