ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
One topic in the ongoing conversation between President Trump and his associates and Russia is adoption. According to Donald Trump Jr., that subject came up in the meeting he had with a Russian lawyer last year, and President Trump himself says adoption was raised in his conversation with Russian President Vladimir Putin at the G-20 summit earlier this month.
Americans have been banned from adopting Russian children since 2013. The ban has been viewed as a retaliatory move following U.S. sanctions on Russians suspected of human rights abuses. It's part of a U.S. law called the Magnitsky Act. Some people say that Russian offers to talk about adoption are simply code for talking about lifting those sanctions. I asked Russia watcher Matthew Rojansky, director of the Kennan Institute at the Wilson Center, if that's accurate.
MATTHEW ROJANSKY: That's right in the sense that there is definitely a bigger political issue here in which the issue of banning adoptions, the treatment of Russians adopted by Americans is mostly a political instrument. There's a small kernel of truth in that the Russian retaliation law is named the Dima Yakovlev Law in honor of a young Russian boy adopted by Americans who did die in the United States. He was left in a hot car by his adoptive parents. It's a human tragedy.
This was reported in Russia and became really the cause celebre that justified in the eyes of many Russians these punitive measures. But for the Russian government the real motivation, I think, for all of this really was political. And it's the perception on the part of the Kremlin that the Magnitsky Act was one of the opening salvos in an attempt to do regime change in Russia. And that really is an existential threat as Vladimir Putin sees it.
SIEGEL: Well, back to adoption, back to that question. How significant were U.S. adoptions of Russian children?
ROJANSKY: Well, you know, we're talking about something like 50,000 or 60,000 successful adoption cases over the course of a couple of decades. I, you know, personally have known adoptive parents and aspiring adoptive parents who have gone to Russia multiple times, waded through complex bureaucracy and then have very successfully expanded their families. They had a lot of love to give, and they had, you know, resources to care for these children who otherwise would have been abandoned. So this was a kind of win-win dynamic, I think, for the young Russians who were helped by it and the American families who wanted to adopt.
SIEGEL: Was this entirely about Russia and the U.S.? That is, are there other countries where there are significant numbers of adoptions from Russia?
ROJANSKY: You know, broadly speaking across the Western world, there have been plenty of adoptions from Russia. Canadians do it. Europeans do it. But it has been a sensitivity vis-a-vis United States because of politics. The United States is perceived as a particularly hostile actor. And again, it's the political dimension of all of this. It's the idea that the - it's almost happenstance that banning adoptions is the particular punishment against the United States for the Magnitsky Act because what the Kremlin cares about most here is not the issue of adoptions. It's demonstrating to the United States that we are not allowed to judge who should be in power in Russia and who should be out. And that is - that's how the Magnitsky Act was understood. And this was just a convenient retaliatory step.
SIEGEL: And yet there are American families who might have been in the process of trying to adopt that would regard resuming the adoption process as the most important thing they could imagine happening with Russia.
ROJANSKY: Well, there's no question that there are American families and there are Russian children who may not have political opinions but who certainly suffered as a result of this. My hope would be - I don't know if this is possible, but my hope would be that we can separate out these issues, that the dispute we have with the Russians that's going to be ongoing about the content of the Magnitsky Act - essentially, you know, Russian human rights abuse issues and sanctions against individual Russians - can be separated off from resuming some kind of normal relationship on essentially social welfare and people-to-people issues, including adoptions, that that should be possible.
SIEGEL: Matthew Rojansky, thanks for talking with us about it today.
ROJANSKY: Thank you.
SIEGEL: Matthew Rojansky, who spoke to us from Monterey, Calif., is director of the Kennan Institute at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, D.C.
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