Washington has reportedly put some 60 Russians on its visa ‘blacklist’ for alleged involvement in the death of Sergei Magnitsky, a lawyer working for an American firm, in police custody in Russia in 2009. It is surely a much harsher move than what the US did to Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi. How Moscow is going to react and whether Washington would press ahead with the visa ban or would cave in due to the ‘assymetrical’ retaliation the Russians have threatened will be useful to know in the coming weeks. There is a strange parallel, too. The US slammed the visa ban on Modi just as the NDA government declared that India and US were ‘natural allies’. The visa ban on the Russians also comes at the high noon of the historic US-Russia ‘reset’.
But unlike the NDA leadership, the Kremlin doesn’t seem to take the American move lightly. Of course, the Magnitsky case, although a celebrated case for human rights activists all over the West, is not a patch on the Gujarat riots in its sheer horror and explosive bestiality. Magnitsky was apparently denied medical care for pancreatitis while in jail and was probably beaten up. All the same, it is interesting that the US came down like a ton of bricks slamming visa ban on 5 dozen Russian officials, including some politicians. Whereas, they just singled out Modi to atone for all the sins of the Gujarat riots.
The Russians are already discussing loudly where and when they could retaliate. A whole lot of choices seem to be avaiable — North Korea, Afghanistan, Libya, Iran etc. Simply put, Russians may refuse to cooperate with the Barack Obama administration unless the US retracted from the visa ban. Alas, in the case of Modi, US-India strategic partnership simply gallopped from strength to strength since 2002 and no one in Delhi in the BJP or Congress seemed to care that the chief minister cannot visit the US in a lifetime.
But then, Russian-American relations have a long,checquered history. Nothing that happens on the play field is ever forgiven or forgotten. Everything is on the basis of strict reciprocity. You kick me, I’ll kick you back. Although Moscow too, like Delhi, has its fair crop of Russian elites who day in and day out eat out of the hands of American diplomats, when it comes to the sweep of Russian-American relationship, things are measured carefully in coffee spoons. All the same, Russians have to move carefully in any rataliation. What can happen is that other countries in the West may follow the US move, which will bring about an ugly confrontation between Moscow and the West. In the case of Modi at least, a chain reaction didn’t happen. Delhi acted prudently; it didn’t retaliate and make the Modi visa ban a cause celebre. It just let the matter rest as something strictly between Modi and the Americans.