By Steve Gutterman
MOSCOW (Reuters) - Moscow said on Saturday that Washington had dealt a severe blow to relations by barring 18 Russians from the United States over alleged human rights abuses, and in retaliation it banned 18 Americans from entering Russia.
U.S. President Barack Obama's administration had on Friday issued a list of 18 people subject to visa bans and asset freezes in the United States under the Magnitsky Act legislation passed by Congress late last year.
"Under pressure from Russophobic members of the U.S. Congress, a powerful blow has been dealt to bilateral relations and mutual trust," a Russian Foreign Ministry statement said.
The blacklistings could dim hopes voiced publicly by both sides of rehabilitating a relationship increasingly strained since President Vladimir Putin returned to the Kremlin last May.
However, both governments showed restraint, keeping high-level current officials off their lists in an apparent effort to contain the political damage.
The most prominent names on Russia's list were from the administration of George W. Bush, and the wording blaming U.S. lawmakers seemed aimed to take some of the heat off Obama.
White House national security adviser Tom Donilon is to have talks on Monday with senior officials in Moscow - the highest-level face-to-face contact since the U.S. president began a second term in January.
The Foreign Ministry listed 18 Americans subject to visa bans and asset freezes under a retaliatory law Putin signed in December that allowed such steps against Americans deemed to have violated the human rights of Russians abroad. That law also banned the adoption of Russian children by Americans.
Americans barred from Russia included four the ministry said were linked to the "legalisation and application of torture".
Those four included two Bush-era officials - David Addington, a former chief of staff of Vice President Dick Cheney; John Choon Yoo, a former Justice Department lawyer - and two former commanders of the U.S. military detention centres at the Guantanamo Bay U.S. Naval Base.
As counsel to Cheney, critics say Addington pressed for more coercive interrogation tactics, while Yoo issued a legal opinion that said federal laws on the use of torture did not apply to interrogations conducted overseas.
Geoffrey D. Miller, a retired major general and a Bush-era commander at Guantanamo, was sent to Iraq to advise on interrogation tactics and was an adviser on interrogations at Abu Ghraib prison. Rear Admiral Jeffrey Harbeson was a Guantanamo commander during Obama's first term.
The list includes law enforcement authorities involved in the prosecution of Viktor Bout, a Russian arms trader serving a 25-year U.S. prison term after his arrest in Thailand, and of Konstantin Yaroshenko, who was detained in Liberia and sentenced to 20 years on drug-trafficking charges in the United States.
"The war of lists is not our choice, but we have no right not to respond to blatant blackmail," the ministry statement said. "It is high time for politicians in Washington to finally realise that it is futile to build relations with a country like Russia in a spirit of mentoring and outright diktat."
Putin, in power as president or prime minister since 2000, has frequently complained about what he says is the use by the United States of human rights concerns as a pretext for meddling in the affairs of Russia and other nations.
The U.S. list includes 16 people linked to the case of Russian whistleblower Sergei Magnitsky, whose death in a Moscow jail in 2009 underscored the risks of challenging the Russian state and deepened U.S. concern for civil rights and the rule of law in Russia.
THE MAGNITSKY EFFECT
Putin has said that Magnitsky's death at age 37 was caused by heart failure. But the Kremlin's own human rights council has aired suspicions that Magnitsky was beaten to death and he had repeatedly said he was denied medical treatment in jail.
Former colleagues say Magnitsky was jailed on tax evasion charges by the same Russian officials he had accused of stealing $230 million from the state through fraudulent tax rebates.
Nobody has been held criminally responsible for Magnitsky's death, and he is now being tried posthumously in a Moscow court despite the outrage of relatives and lawyers who say the trial is illegal and inhuman.
"The right response by Russia to the international outcry over Sergei Magnitsky's death would be to conduct a proper investigation and hold those responsible for his death accountable, rather than engage in tit-for-tat retaliation," a U.S. State Department spokesman said on Saturday.
Putin and other Russian officials say the United States is in no position to criticise other nations on human rights.
The Russian list includes Americans "involved in the legalisation and application of torture and the indefinite detention at the Guantanamo special prison, and in arrests and abductions of Russian citizens in third countries".
The exchange of lists increased tension before the visit by Donilon, who is expected to gauge Russia's appetite for better ties and the chances of progress on the divisive issue of missile defence.
A U.S. decision to scale down plans for a European missile shield could ease Russia's stated concerns that the system will weaken its security, but Moscow's response so far has been cautious.
Putin's spokesman said on Friday the U.S. list would have a "very negative" effect but also signalled Russia wanted to limit the damage, saying relations were multifaceted and there remained "many prospects for development and growth".
The fact that neither nation included any current high-ranking official on its list could help keep the issue separate from others, such as security or arms control, though both governments have indicated some names were kept secret.
U.S. lawmakers who had hoped for a longer list including officials closer to Putin were disappointed, and a senior Russian lawmaker said on Friday he believed Obama had kept the list to a "minimum" to avoid causing a crisis.
Relations between the former Cold War foes improved during Obama's first-term push to "reset" ties with Russia, but they soured again after Putin started his march back to the presidency in 2011. He was elected in March 2012.
Putin accused the United States of encouraging opposition protests against him, and Russia has cracked down on Western-funded non-governmental organisations since he took office.
The countries are also at odds over the war in Syria and what Putin's foes say is a clampdown by him on dissent through restrictive legislation and politically charged trials.
(Additional reporting by Lidia Kelly in Moscow and Douwe Miedema in Washington; Editing by Mark Heinrich)