President Obama on Friday insisted he doesn’t have a bad personal relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin

“I know the press likes to focus on body language, and he’s got that kind of slouch, looking like the bored kid at the back of the classroom,” Obama said at a news conference on Friday. “The truth is when we’re in conversations together, they are oftentimes very productive.”…

“There are just going to be some differences, and we’re not going to be able to completely disguise them, and that’s OK,” Obama said.

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The American secretaries of state and defense sought Friday to demonstrate that President Obama’s decision to cancel a summit meeting with President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia had not disrupted bilateral discussions on nuclear weapons, missile defense and regional issues.

But American officials did not cite any tangible accomplishments from a day of meetings here that brought together the top diplomatic and defense officials from both Russia and the United States, except for a promise to increase official contacts, including military exchanges. That was viewed as underscoring unresolved disagreements on issues like Syria and missile defense — all rendered more complicated by Russia’s granting temporary asylum to Edward J. Snowden, the National Security Agency leaker…

“The world is complicated; it is combustible,” Mr. Hagel said. “To find solutions at a critical time in the world are not easy.”

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“The Russians have reset, they’ve reset alright, back to about 1955,” said Republican Sen. John McCain, who has been a vocal critic of Russia and Putin in the past.

McCain said the United States needs to do more than cancel a meeting, such as expand the Magnitsky Act, legislation passed in 2012 that seeks to punish Russians implicated in human rights abuses.

McCain also suggested the United States seek a free trade agreement with the Europeans so they won’t be so dependent on Russian oil, bring Georgia into NATO, and have U.S. missile defenses placed in Europe.

“It’s not confrontation, it is just a realistic approach to a country that is not acting in the interest of world peace,” said McCain.

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Putin could simply not resist an act [granting asylum to Edward Snowden] that would not only embarrass Washington, but remind it that Russia, not America, is now in the driver’s seat of their east-west relationship

As Lukyanov puts it: ‘’If Putin cares about nothing else, he cares about how the Third World thinks about Russia. And the Third World sees Snowden as a hero who spilled the beans on imperialist America. Putin is sensitive to that. There’s too much at stake not to be.”

Finally, Putin saw a chance to strike at the heart of the US-Russia rivalry – the fight over each other’s human rights record.

In this context, Snowden is Putin’s early Christmas present. He can hold Snowden up as a beacon for those who speak the truth about government abuse of individual freedoms- even as he cracks down on gays, NGOs, and all forms of opposition.

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Russia’s decision to grant temporary asylum to Edward Snowden, who has revealed vast documentation on U.S. intelligence gathering, speaks loudly both to Russian-American relations and Moscow’s domestic politics. What it especially tells us is that U.S. President Barack Obama’s policy of patient, deferential constructive engagements has basically failed

In terms of foreign policy, it is true that Russia has co-operated to some extent on fighting terrorism and allowed U.S. transit flights to Afghanistan, although this was done out of self-interest and was quickly restricted whenever it impinged even minimally on the Kremlin’s concerns. However, Mr. Obama’s high hopes for Russian co-operation on the North Korean and Iranian threats have been regularly rebuffed. And Moscow’s continuing efforts to protect its Syrian client state, despite the killings of tens of thousands of civilians, shows how the Kremlin views Western democratic interests with undisguised contempt.

Mr. Obama, in his fifth year in power, has yet to exact any price for such deadly Russian obstruction – at best, confusing patience with fecklessness. In Mr. Putin’s eyes, the “reset button” has freed him to pursue his repressive policies at home and his mischievous ambitions abroad, without U.S. retaliation.

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Under Dmitry Medvedev’s presidency, there was a clear warming of relations with Obama. In particular, the two sides signed the New START treaty in 2010, and Russia supported United Nations sanctions against Iran several months later. But starting with the beginning of Putin’s third presidency in May 2012, Obama took a clear “pivot” toward China and downgraded Russia to a lower priority in U.S. foreign policy.

If nothing else, the downgrade shows how low the stakes are in U.S.-Russian relations. In contrast, although U.S.-Chinese relations are much more problematic and the disputes between the two countries are more heated, both Washington and Beijing have worked hard to overcome these problems because the economic stakes between the two nations are so high.

Since the economic component in U.S.-­Russian relations is far less significant, Obama reached the conclusion that it is not worth the effort to try to revive a “reset” that has been clinically dead since December 2011, when the Kremlin started the crude propaganda campaign claiming that the U.S. State Department was trying to foment an Orange-like revolution in Russia through its support of nongovernmental organizations and the opposition movement. The Kremlin’s anti-U.S. campaign was proof positive of its “pivot” backward — toward the Soviet Union…

In the end, by seemingly blessing the decision to grant Snowden asylum before the planned Moscow summit, Putin all but made Obama’s cancellation of the summit a given. This was Putin provocation par excellence.

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Of the three options available to him, President Barack Obama chose the middle one. And while seemingly a step in the right direction, it gets him the least bang for his buck.

One option was not to attend the G-20 session. The message would have been stark and unmistakable: Russia hosting the group’s summit after a year and a half of a relentless and merciless assault on civil society and nonviolent political opposition following Putin’s election in March 2012 is unacceptable to the world’s leading industrial democracy.

On the opposite end of the tactical spectrum was the option of having a summit with Putin in order to underscore the differences, starting with the body language — remember Obama’s first meeting with the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu? — and ending up with a press conference at which Obama could have hinted at the substance of his so-called frank talk with Putin and criticized Russia’s human rights record in front of the world. And don’t underestimate the effect of an American president finally telling the Russian autocrat face to face what he thinks of his crackdown…

No matter what the Kremlin’s propaganda blares about before the meeting, hosting a meeting attended by a U.S. president is a key domestic and foreign legitimizing device. It says to the Russian people: No matter what we do domestically, the regime is still respected enough by the only country that matters to us. The state-owned television channels where most Russians get their news are not going to delve into diplomatic intricacies. Here’s Obama attending the G-20 meeting, and here’s its host, Putin, smiling — and getting smiled at in return. All’s fine then.

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Putin — earlier than other leaders — grasped that the U.S. was back to a utopian Jimmy Carter mode. And so, not content in finding advantage, he also seeks fun in publicly humiliating the U.S. He was always an unapologetic Russian nationalist, stung by the loss of prestige after the collapse of the Soviet Union, but reenergized by huge oil revenues. His stock and trade has always been pointing out Western moral hypocrisies — from supporting cruel anti-democratic Islamists to distorting U.N. resolutions on no-fly zones and humanitarian aid in Libya.

In that sense, he is the perfect antithesis to Obama. The sanctimonious Al-Arabiya interview, the Cairo Speech, and the missionary declarations on Libya all presupposed that Obama alone was sensitive to diverse cultures and had both the charisma and moxie to win over those who were previously alienated due to less-sophisticated American leaders.

The result is not just chaos in the Middle East — an unbound Iran, the Syrian quagmire, the Somalization of Libya, Benghazi, the closing of an unprecedented number of embassies, the Egyptian flip-flop-flips, another doomed Israeli-Palestinian initiative — but a global sense that most countries either politely tune Obama’s soaring rhetoric out, or enjoy finding ways to expose the lack of commensurate concrete consequences.

Putin knows that and positions himself as the sort of realist that mocks Obama’s pretensions.

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