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U.S.-Russia Relations Continue To Falter With Prosecution Of Dead Man


You are listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

Next week, Secretary of State John Kerry sets off on his first official trip. He'll head to both Europe and the Middle East. He will not be visiting Russia but aides say he might meet his Russian counterparts somewhere on the trip.

They have a lot to talk about, from the crisis in Syria to a dispute over adoptions, as NPR's Michele Kelemen reports.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: There are many signs that U.S./Russian relations are in the tank. One example is playing out in a Russian courtroom, where a dead man is going on trial next month.

NIKOLAI GOROKHOV: (Foreign language spoken)

KELEMEN: This is Nikolai Gorokhov, a lawyer representing the family of Sergei Magnitsky, the corruption whistle-blower who died in a Russian prison three years ago.

GOROKHOV: (Foreign language spoken).

KELEMEN: He says the decision to put the late Magnitsky on trial is cynical and inhuman. Maryland Senator Ben Cardin agrees.

SENATOR BEN CARDIN: The Russians are making a mockery of the rule of law.

KELEMEN: The Maryland Democrat is one of the authors of a U.S. law named for Sergei Magnitsky. It bars Russian officials involved in the case from traveling to the U.S.

CARDIN: We're not going to be intimidated by the type of action that Russia is taking now to try to legitimate what they have done, when it clearly violated international standards.

KELEMEN: Cardin was furious when Russian lawmakers responded to the Magnitsky Act by banning adoptions of Russian children by American families.

CARDIN: Russia using orphans to shield criminals is just outrageous and immoral and wrong.

KELEMEN: But now, there's a new twist in the adoption saga as well. A three-year-old boy who was adopted from Russia died in Texas last month and Russian authorities were quick to call it an example of inhuman treatment of Russian children. State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland is urging Moscow not to overreact.

VICTORIA NULAND: Let me underscore that it is a terrible tragedy that this child has died. But none of us, not here, not anywhere in the world, should jump to a conclusion about the circumstances until the police have had a chance to investigate.

KELEMEN: Experts who follow U.S./Russia relations, including Fiona Hill of the Brookings Institution, have seen the situation before.

FIONA HILL: Then one of these cycles that we often get into of tit-for-tat responses, we've done this many times before over the past 20-plus years since the collapse of the Soviet Union. It's always hard to break out of that.

KELEMEN: Especially, she says, at a time when Russian President Vladimir Putin has domestic reasons for such posturing. It's not just the adoption ban that worries former U.S. ambassador to Russia James Collins. He says Russia has passed a whole series of laws that will make it harder for U.S. nonprofits and possibly even universities and businesses to deal with Russians.

JAMES COLLINS: We need a very frank discussion with Russia about the effects of perhaps both of our laws on the conduct of business between us. And when I say business, I don't mean just private sector. I mean, the whole range of activities that involve our citizens.

KELEMEN: Collins, who now works at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, says it's time for both sides to think about their priorities and set an agenda for the years ahead. Even Senator Cardin, an outspoken critic of Russia's poor human rights record, says he plans to meet Russian lawmakers at an international conference this week in Vienna.

CARDIN: We want to improve relations. We think it's in the interest of both countries, but it's not one-sided. A good relationship with Russia is important for the United States, but it's also important for Russia.

KELEMEN: It took several days for Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov just to return a phone call from Secretary of State John Kerry. Now, their aides are trying to arrange a meeting as soon as they can. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, the State Department. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.