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Senate must send signal to Russia

It’s time for the Senate to send Russia a strong signal in support of human rights, transparency and the rule of law. In the aftermath of last week’s election – marred by fraud, followed by unjust arrests of hundreds of peaceful protestors, opposition leaders and human rights activists – it’s crucial to stand with courageous Russian citizens. who are asking only that their basic and universal rights are protected.

The Senate has two options – one for immediate action, and one to consider in the coming year.

First, the Senate should immediately confirm Michael McFaul, a renowned human rights expert, as our ambassador to Russia.

McFaul is a leading professor of Russian history and democratic transitions in Eastern Europe. So he is prepared to navigate the complexities of the U.S.-Russian relationship. Since 2009 he has served as President Barack Obama’s top White House adviser on Russia policy.

Perhaps more important, McFaul focused on democracy promotion. He served as director of Stanford’s Center on Democracy, Development and the Rule of Law and the first representative for the National Democratic Institute in Moscow. He literally wrote the book on this — Advancing Democracy Abroad.”

During McFaul’s nomination hearing, which I chaired, he committed to being a strong advocate for human rights and the rule of law in Russia — in public and in private with government officials. He has already been a loud voice in the Obama administration — arguing for high level attention on Russia’s deteriorating human rights record and meeting regularly with Russian opposition figures and civil society advocates.

He delivered some important assurances when speaking to my panel. On missile defense, McFaul committed “to do what is necessary to protect ourselves and our allies” and emphasized that the U.S. is “not going to sign any legally binding agreement that would in any way constrain our missile defense systems.”

He also reaffirmed Georgia’s territorial integrity, and continued U.S. support for Georgia’s goals of joining the broader European community.

McFaul faces many challenges — and Russian leaders will likely make the job more difficult. Russian officials have recently declared that they may soon aim mid-range missiles at Europe, threatened to close a critical supply line into Afghanistan and blocked U.N. Security Council sanctions of a murderous regime in Syria. These facts only serve to increase the urgency in getting him to Moscow.

Second, once McFaul is confirmed, the Senate can give him new soft power tools that can underscore U.S. support for the Russian people and their calls for freedom and democracy.

I am to chair a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing Wednesday on human rights and the rule of law in Russia. The panel is scheduled to discuss the Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act, introduced by Sen. Ben Cardin and co-sponsored by me and 24 other senators. This bill was designed to address the tragic case of Magnitsky, a Russian lawyer who died following wrongful imprisonment for exposing corruption in Russia.

The legislation denies a U.S. visa to any person believed responsible for major human rights violations in Russia. It could help in strengthening Russian civil society efforts aimed at greater government transparency, protecting civil and human rights and a guaranteed voice in the political process.

The State Department disclosed this summer that it has barred dozens of Russian officials from traveling to the U.S. because of their alleged involvement in the Magnitsky case.

McFaul has personally done much to shine light on this case — meeting with Magnitsky’s wife in Moscow and speaking at the premiere of a documentary about him. The administration’s efforts should be commended, and we look forward to working with them to institutionalize this diplomatic tool.

The complex U.S. - Russia relationship is marked at times by mutual interests and at others by diametrically opposed principles and ideals. We need our strongest, most capable civil servants in Moscow now, and we must give them effective diplomatic tools to pursue our security interests and promote our values. McFaul is one such strong civil servant, and the Magnitsky bill can be a crucial tool.