Russia set to ban U.S. adoptions

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MOSCOW -- President Vladimir V. Putin's decision Thursday to endorse a ban on U.S. citizens adopting Russian children dealt a serious blow to an already-strained diplomatic relationship, but for hundreds of Americans enmeshed in the costly, complicated adoption process, the impact was deeply personal.

"I'm a little numb," said Maria Drewinsky, a massage therapist from Sea Cliff, N.Y., who was in the final stages of adopting a 5-year-old boy named Alyosha.

Both she and her husband have flown twice to visit him, and they speak to him weekly by phone. "We have clothes and a bedroom all set up for him," she said, "and we talk about him all the time as our son."

But the couple are starting to fear that Alyosha may never get to New York, after Mr. Putin's announcement Thursday that he would sign the adoption ban into law, as part of a bill retaliating against a new U.S. law aimed at punishing human rights abuses in Russia.

If the ban comes into force Tuesday, as called for in the law, it stands to upend the plans of many U.S. families in the final stages of adopting in Russia. Already, it has added wrenching emotional tumult to a process that can cost $50,000 or more, requires repeated trips overseas and typically entails lengthy and maddening encounters with bureaucracy. The ban would apparently also nullify an agreement on adoptions between Russia and the United States that was ratified earlier this year and just went into effect Nov. 1.

The bill was approved unanimously Wednesday by the Federation Council, Parliament's upper chamber. Mr. Putin said he would sign it as well as a resolution also adopted Wednesday that calls for improvements in Russia's child welfare system. "I intend to sign the law," Mr. Putin said, "as well as a presidential decree changing the procedure of helping orphaned children, children left without parental care, and especially children who are in a disadvantageous situation due to their health problems."

Mr. Putin also brushed aside criticism that the law would deny some Russian orphans the chance for a much better life in the United States. In 2011, about 1,000 Russian children were adopted to Americans, more than to any other foreign country, but still a tiny number given that nearly 120,000 children in Russia are eligible for adoption. "There are probably many places in the world where living standards are better than ours," Mr. Putin said. "So what? Shall we send all children there, or move there ourselves?"

U.S. officials have criticized the measure and have urged the Russian government not to entangle orphaned children in politics. "We have repeatedly made clear, both in private and in public, our deep concerns about the bill passed by the Russian Parliament," State Department spokesman Patrick Ventrell said Thursday.

Internally, however, Obama administration officials have been debating how strongly to respond to the adoption ban, and the potential implications for other aspects of the U.S. relationship with Russia.

The United States relies heavily on overland routes through Russia to ship supplies to military units in Afghanistan and has enlisted Russia's help in containing Iran's nuclear program. The former Cold War rivals also have sharp disagreements, notably over the civil war in Syria.

The bill that includes the adoption ban was drafted in response to the Magnitsky Act, a law signed by President Barack Obama earlier this month that will bar Russian citizens accused of violating human rights from traveling to the United States and from owning real estate or other assets there. The Obama administration had opposed the Magnitsky legislation, fearing diplomatic retaliation, but members of Congress were eager to press Russia over human rights abuses and tied the bill to another measure granting Russia new status as a full trading partner.

Mr. Putin accused the United States of hypocrisy, noting human rights abuses in Iraq, Afghanistan and at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and he pledged to retaliate. But he held his cards even as the lower house of Parliament, the State Duma, approved the adoption bill by a large margin, followed by unanimous approval by the Federation Council.

Like Mr. Obama, he can now say he is signing a bill with overwhelming support from the legislative branch -- although Mr. Putin holds far more sway over Russian lawmakers than Obama does over Congress.

The adoption ban set off an impassioned ideological debate here in Russia and opened a rare split at the highest levels of government with some senior officials speaking out strongly against it. Critics said the ban would most hurt orphans already suffering in Russia's troubled child welfare system, while supporters said Russians should care for their own and pointed at sporadic abuse cases involving adopted Russian children in the United States that have generated publicity and outrage here.

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