Thursday, July 28, Russia threatened to freeze the "reset" ties with the United States, which had recently produced valuable cooperation and friendly understandings between the two powers in the Middle East, Afghanistan and other essential global arenas. debkafile's Moscow sources report that the areas most affected are likely to be the Israel-Palestinian dispute, Moscow's role as broker for ending the Libyan war and the Russian supply route for US forces fighting in Afghanistan.
Wednesday night, the Kremlin sharply denounced the travel ban to America US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton quietly imposed on a group of senior Russian officials tied to the death in prison of the Russian whistleblower Sergei Magnitsky.
In exceptionally strong language, Washington was reprimanded for meting out "arbitrary punishment" to individuals not found guilty in court. "Attempts to interfere in the investigation and to pressure the judiciary are absolutely unacceptable," said the Russian statement. "Clearly, we won't let such hostile steps happen without a response and will take adequate measures to protect our country's sovereignty and our citizens from such wrongful actions by foreign states."
debkafile's Middle East sources report that the measures were already palpable this w eek in a slowdown of Russia's diplomatic efforts to end the Libyan war, which were undertaken at the request of President Barack Obama. Senior mediator Mikhail Margelov, who had set up base in Libya, was ordered by the Kremlin to suspend his contacts with the two sides of the dispute.
Next on the cards is the phased shutdown of the Russian-controlled Northern Distribution Network bringing supplies to NATO troops in Afghanistan via Russian Black Sea and Baltic ports. Its use was expanded as an alternative to the supply route through Pakistan with which US relations are badly strained.
The affair casting a cloud on Russian-US relations dates back two years when Sergei Magnitsky, a lawyer employed by Hermitage, a big Russian investment firm, died in a Moscow prison after exposing a $230 million theft by senior officers of the company. His friends say he was thrown into jail a year earlier by the embezzlers' friends in high places and deliberately left to die as a result of harsh conditions and lack of the medical care he needed.
The US Senate had been examining a bill for imposing a travel ban and freezing the assets of 60 Russian officials involved in the case. Clinton decided to pre-empt the bill before it caused havoc in Russian-US relations. She stepped in with her own watered-down travel ban naming a much smaller group of Russian officials suspected of complicity in the whistleblower's death.
The State Department kept this step under wraps. Even after it leaked out, spokesmen refuse to say how many Russian officials were targeted.
However, the Secretary's effort to tone down the impact of the affair on the "reset" she had ushered in for relations with Russia backfired. Moscow hit the ceiling over any foreign interference in its domestic affairs in any shape or form and began withdrawing from joint efforts in vital areas.