The late-December sentence handed down by a Moscow court against Mikhail Khodorkovsky should have surprised no one. Ever since the Kremlin launched new legal proceedings against the former oil tycoon about three years ago, a guilty verdict was a foregone conclusion. Still, the repeat conviction of Khodorkovsky, already serving an eight-year term in a Siberian jail, to an additional six years in prison on fresh (and blatantly fabricated) charges speaks volumes about the receding rule of law in Russia. So, too, does Washington's apparent ambivalence about it.
Khodorkovsky has been a symbol of Russia's rigged justice system for almost a decade. One of the country's original oligarchs, he grew rich on the shady trades and murky acquisitions that characterized the no-holds-barred economic privatization that followed the Soviet collapse in the early 1990s. But his meteoric fall from grace a decade later had little to do with those dubious financial dealings. Rather, Khodorkovsky found himself in the political cross hairs for supporting the liberal opposition to the government of then-President Vladimir Putin - and for toying with the idea of eventually throwing his own hat into the presidential ring. By doing so, Khodorkovsky violated the quiet understanding under which the Russian government had allowed the oligarchs to enrich themselves, provided they stayed out of national politics.
The Kremlin's retaliation was immediate and severe. Over the span of a few weeks in 2003, Khodorkovsky and his former business partner, Platon Lebedev, were detained on an array of charges. His Yukos oil company, then one of Russia's biggest and most successful firms, was dismembered and largely nationalized. After a very public show trial, Khodorkovsky was convicted in 2005 and sentenced to serve eight years in a remote Siberian prison.
But even behind bars, Khodorkovsky is still an irritant - and a useful political prop. Accordingly, Russian officials have tried to ensure that the high costs of crossing the Kremlin remain fresh in the minds of most Russians, opening up new corruption and fraud charges against their country's best-known political prisoner in February 2007.
This fall, as Khodorkovsky's second trial was concluding in Moscow, his defense team made the rounds in Washington, attempting to drum up interest in the looming miscarriage of justice about to befall their client. Their arguments - that Khodorkovsky was a high-profile pawn of Kremlin power politics and that his fate was a "litmus test" of sorts for Russian democracy - received attentive nods from observers concerned with Russia's accelerating authoritarian drift. But where it mattered - among the shapers of official policy toward Russia - they fell on deaf ears. The White House, preoccupied with its "reset" of relations with Moscow and the most prominent showpiece of that policy - the New START then being considered by Congress - had little interest in picking a fight with the Kremlin over its human rights record.
So Khodorkovsky's verdict, handed down on Dec. 27, succeeded in generating a pointed admonition from the Obama administration, with Press Secretary Robert Gibbs warning that Russia's "failure to keep this commitment to universal values, including the rule of law, impedes its own modernization and ability to deepen its ties with the United States." Beyond that, however, the White House has given precious little indication that it is truly willing to make the Khodorkovsky case and similar official abuses of power a serious bilateral issue in its dealings with Russia.
All of this could end up being a tragedy for the United States - and for Russia. During the Cold War, successive U.S. administrations simultaneously focused on the nature of the Soviet regime and on its external conduct. And through a number of tangible economic and political initiatives, the United States managed to significantly alter how the Soviet Union treated its own captive population, sowing the seeds for greater freedom behind the Iron Curtain in the process.
The Obama administration, by contrast, has elevated process over substance. It has focused on the need for new bilateral reductions of strategic weaponry, working hard to secure the 11th-hour passage of New START by the outgoing lame-duck Congress. At the same time, it has taken a laissez-faire approach to issues of human rights and democracy in Russia, preferring to gloss over them in favor of areas of greater commonality.
Yet, by granting Moscow a pass on its internal conduct, Washington runs the risk of strengthening the Kremlin's rising authoritarian impulses and accelerating its drift away from democracy. That, in turn, will make a real reset in relations even harder to envision than it is at the moment.