How Canada’s Magnitsky Law Could Benefit Vladimir Putin

Rather than holding his regime to account, the Law fuels Putin’s “Russia-under-seige” narrative just in time for his March election.

by Jan 15, 2018

Vladimir Puten at the 2009 World Economic Forum Annual Meeting in Davos. Remy Steinegger/World Economic Forum

In October 2017, Canada adopted Bill S-226, or the Justice for Victims of Corrupt Foreign Officials Act. Dubbed the Magnitsky Law after deceased Russian tax lawyer Sergei Magnitsky, the bill enables the government of Canada to crack down on corruption, money laundering, and human rights abuses abroad by imposing travel bans and sanctions on foreign nationals believed to be responsible for grave violations of human rights.

Proponents herald the Magnitsky Law as an important addition to Canada’s “foreign policy toolkit,” an instrument with which Canada can bring accountability to global human rights abusers by freezing their assets and banning their travel to Canada. The Magnitsky Law reflects long held Canadian values and, for many, is a mechanism by which Canada can translate its values into concrete action.  In fact, Canada issued its first round of sanctions under the Magnitsky Law just weeks after the Bill’s adoption, targeting dozens of foreign nationals from Russia, Venezuela and South Sudan.

“The Magnitsky Law reflects long held Canadian values and…is a mechanism by which Canada can translate its values into concrete action.”

We are not the only nation to do so; the United States passed the Russia and Moldova Jackson-Vanik Repeal and Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act in 2012, which similarly banned the travel, and froze the assets of, a list of Russian officials thought to be responsible for the death of Sergei Magnitsky in Russian custody. Magnitsky, a Russian lawyer who had publicly accused key Russian officials of massive tax fraud, was detained by Russian authorities, never charged, and was subjected to inhumane incarceration, where he later died from health complications as a consequence of his confinement. The US State Department drew up a list of Russian officials responsible – known as the Magnitsky List – and targeted them as a means of promoting accountability for Magnitsky’s death, and also to take aim at Russian corruption, without directly targeting Putin himself. Canada issued its own sanctions on Russian political and military leaders following the annexation of Crimea in 2014. Russia responded in kind, banning key American and Canadian officials, including Canada’s own Foreign Minister, Chrystia Freeland (who was then a Member of Parliament), and also issuing a ban on the American adoption of Russian children.

Canada’s recent adoption of the Magnitsky Law, and the first round of officials sanctioned in its name, have met with outrage from Vladimir Putin himself, who chalks this up to political gamesmanship and “anti-Russian hysteria.” This is not the first time that Putin has accused western governments of Russophobia. In a way, the Magnitsky Law could help to drive this narrative and play right into Putin’s hands.  There is no doubt that what happened to Magnitsky is shameful, and he is just one of many voices of opposition whose rights have been denied, and who have met with violence and even death. From the vengeful and politically motivated prosecutions of Mikhail Khodorkovsky and Pussy Riot, to the suspicious deaths of Kremlin critics Boris Nemtsov, Alexander Litvinenko and Anna Politkovskaya, graft and abuses of power characterize the Putin regime. Nonetheless, it is not yet clear whether this Law will have the desired effect. And it could even help to fuel a narrative in which Putin claims to be the restorer of Russian greatness and the defender of Russia from Western efforts to deny Russia its rightful status among the world’s powers. It is possible that Canada’s Magnitsky Law, while well intentioned, might just help to reinforce Putin’s assertion that the West is looking for opportunities to demonize Russia. The ban of Russian athletes from the 2018 Winter Olympic Games in Pyeongchang also emboldens Putin’s role as defender of Russia.

“The Magnitsky Law might just provide Putin fodder for his “Russia-under-siege” narrative, without meaningfully holding his regime to account.”

Putin has often invoked anti-Russianism, accusing the West of characterizing Russians as “dirty,” and of “having just come down from the trees” and “needing their beards trimmed.” Putin’s comments are extreme, but they do illustrate a very real discourse in the West (particularly in Washington, perhaps owing to the Cold War legacy) that inherently distrusts and demonizes Russia. This creates a rather difficult problem. The Russophobia that Putin observes (and which this writer believes does exist on some level in the West) is used by Putin to score political points at home. And this comes just as Putin prepares for his re-election in March 2018. It is possible that the Magnitsky Law might just provide Putin fodder for his “Russia-under-siege” narrative, without meaningfully holding his regime to account for the clear abuses of power that occur under his watch, such as the confinement and murder of Magnitsky. Though Putin is almost certain to win a fourth presidential term, we cannot rule out the extent to which Canada’s actions feed right into his anti-Russia narrative, scoring him political points, and possibly reinforcing the very regime the Magnitsky Law was designed to punish.

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Kari Roberts
Kari Roberts is a Senior Fellow at the Canadian International Council. She is also an Associate Professor of Political Science in the Department of Economics, Justice, and Policy Studies at Mount Royal University in Calgary. Prior to joining MRU in 2009, Dr. Roberts was a Senior Policy Analyst at the Canada West Foundation (2005-2009). Dr. Roberts received her doctorate in Political Science from the University of Calgary and her MA and BA in Political Studies from the University of

Dr. Roberts’ research primarily concerns Russia-US relations, notably the domestic influences on Russian foreign policy toward the United States; she has also written about Russian interests in the Arctic. More recently, Dr. Roberts has been investigating the presence of Russophobia in the American foreign policy calculus, and its impact on decision making in the post-Cold War era.