US and Russia seek deeper co-operation despite bruising clashes on rights issues

Navalny trial could strain ties amid search for common ground on Syria, North Korea, Iran

President Barack Obama with his national security adviser Tom Donilon.

President Barack Obama with his national security adviser Tom Donilon.


The US and Russia say they are determined to strengthen co-operation across a range of major issues, despite Washington’s sharp criticism of Moscow’s rights record and the impending trial of an outspoken US-educated Kremlin critic.

US president Barack Obama sent a letter to his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, this week, containing proposals on everything from expanding trade ties to reducing nuclear arsenals.

Russian newspaper Kommersant quoted an unnamed US official as saying the letter was a kind of “work plan” for US-Russian relations over the coming months, ahead of planned meetings between Mr Obama and Mr Putin at June’s G8 summit at Lough Erne, Co Fermanagh, and the G20 gathering in Russia in September.

The letter was delivered by White House national security adviser Tom Donilon, whose meeting with Mr Putin on Monday was “very positive . . . just like the signals we are now being sent from the Obama administration”, said Mr Putin’s foreign policy aide, Yuri Ushakov.

Mr Donilon arrived in Moscow just days after Washington revealed the names of 18 Russian officials who are barred from the US due to their involvement in the case of Sergei Magnitsky, a lawyer who died in a Moscow jail in 2009 after accusing officials of massive fraud.

The Kremlin’s human rights council says Mr Magnitsky was probably beaten to death, but Russian investigators have closed their inquiry into what happened to him.


ánamo List’
In response to the publication of the US “Magnitsky List”, Moscow last weekend unveiled its own “Guant

ánamo List”. It comprises 18 US officials who will not be allowed into Russia because of their roles in running the Guantánamo Bay prison camp and in the prosecution of Russians including Viktor Bout – the infamous weapons dealer languishing in a US jail.

“This is direct interference in Russian affairs. The so-called ‘Magnitsky case’ should not be discussed outside Russia at all,” said Mr Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov.

The fate of Mr Magnitsky is just one of several rights issues that have drawn strong criticism from Washington. Along with the EU, the US has challenged Russia over raids on non-governmental organisations, which many suspect are intended to silence Mr Putin’s critics. Thousands of NGOs face closure or fines, according to Russia’s justice ministry.

Since returning to the Kremlin, Mr Putin has accused Washington of fomenting anti-government protests in Russia, and expelled US development agency USAid from the country.

But there are key issues on which Washington and Moscow want to work together. They have both strongly criticised North Korea’s bellicose rhetoric, and their positions on Iran’s nuclear programme overlap. While they disagree on Syria and the future of its president, Bashar al-Assad – a longtime Kremlin ally – they know the crisis will be resolved more easily if they co-operate.

Another potential pitfall to rapprochement will open up today, in the city of Kirov. Alexei Navalny – who studied at Yale before becoming one of Mr Putin’s toughest critics – is due to go on trial for alleged fraud.