There are people who are mean — simply heartless and cruel — because they enjoy it. Some lash out because of group dynamics and clique behavior. Others may be cold because of a broken heart or a long-ago slight.
Then there is Russian President Vladimir Putin, who is cruelly using orphans to thwart the cause of human rights.
Putin’s type of meanness is the most dangerous: It’s strategically brilliant. His decision to ban adoptions of Russian children by American parents raises the most unenviable of conundrums for the United States, Europe, and Canada: When a leader like Putin is willing to use orphaned children as political pawns, is the effort to advance human rights really worth it? There is no simple answer, making Putin’s meanness so clever.
Now that the initial gasp of horror following Putin’s adoption ban is over, it is painfully clear that this is a simple hostage story. It includes the fate of 46 children who had already been placed in loving homes in the United States but will now remain in Russia. The Russian orphans are being held, serving as a human shield, because the Russians want to prevent other countries from following the United States in cracking down on human rights abuses under Putin’s regime.
At the end of last year, after considerable delay and debate, President Obama signed a law that granted unrestricted trade status with Russia while, at the same time, blocking any travel visas for members of the Russian government who were involved in the death of lawyer Sergei Magnitsky. Magnitsky was tortured and killed while in custody after discovering rampant fraud in real estate and business dealings by Russian oligarchs. It was a historic law, sure to be a model in future cases, because it focused punishment on specific individuals and tried to limit the perks of their powers, such as travel and investments.
It is wrong to believe, as many commentators have remarked, that Putin is simply being mean because he is angry at Obama for the Magnitsky Act. He had threatened economic retaliation if the president supported the bill, but Obama signed it anyway. Moreover, the Russian officials implicated in Magnitsky’s case do not often travel to the United States, and it is unlikely any of them have real estate or business dealings here.
Putin’s real aim in blocking American adoptions of Russian children is to send a message to Europe, where Magnitsky-type legislation is being proposed and debated across the continent. The European Parliament has urged the European Council to follow America’s strategy. The Netherlands, Germany, Britain, Estonia, Latvia, Sweden, and Poland are all advancing similar legislation. Worldwide, 12 countries are on the Magnitsky bandwagon.
Now, for Putin and his supporters among the Russian elites, the prospect of travel bans within Europe really hurts because that’s where many of them own property, travel for vacation, and send their kids to school. Having failed to block the Magnitsky wave in the United States, Putin is desperate that it at least stop at America’s shores.
So Putin had to devise some initiative that would convince Europe that he is just mean enough to make their focus on one dead lawyer seem inconsequential when compared to, say, a real issue that tugs at the heart strings. Enter the orphans.
It is not at all clear what the other countries will do now. What we can be sure of, however, is that any movement pushed by the human rights community on the Magnitsky bill will be clouded by the thought that Putin may retaliate by withholding orphans.
The next steps need to be weighed with the same shrewdness that animated Putin’s edict. There is no room for sentimentality. The only calculation for these governments is how to weigh one tragedy against another.
Figuring out the answer is not easy. Putin has strategically pitted a usually united constituency against itself — the constituency of people with hearts.Juliette Kayyem can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and Twitter @juliettekayyem.