After earlier insisting that the decision to grant asylum to Edward Snowden would not derail US-Russian diplomacy, the White House has suddenly changed positions. Barack Obama will still attend the G-20 summit in St. Petersburg as planned next month, but the meeting between Obama and Russian president Vladimir Putin has been cancelled by the US:
In a rare diplomatic snub, President Barack Obama is canceling plans to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow next month.
The decision reflects both U.S. anger over Russia’s harboring of National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden and growing frustration within the Obama administration over what it sees as Moscow’s stubbornness on other key issues, including missile defense and human rights.
Obama will still attend the Group of 20 economic summit in St. Petersburg, Russia, but a top White House official said the president had no plans to hold one-on-one talks with Putin while there. Instead of visiting Putin in Moscow, the president will add a stop in Sweden to his early September travel itinerary.
White House deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes said Russia’s decision last week to defy the U.S. and grant Snowden temporary asylum only exacerbated an already troubled relationship. And with few signs that progress would be made during the Moscow summit on other agenda items, Rhodes said the president decided to cancel the talks.
Oddly, Obama barely bothered to mention any frustration with the Snowden decision last night on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno. He got more worked up over the new law passed in Russia suppressing dissent from LGBT activists than he did with Putin’s refusal to extradite Snowden. Some reports have “human rights” disagreements as one of the sticking points to the summit, which could include a wide array of repressive laws cracking down on political dissent in Russia, a situation that makes Snowden’s flight there even more ironic. The BBC chalks it up entirely to Snowden’s asylum.
Missile defense is also part of the problem. Seventeen months after he told Dmitri Medvedev sotto voce to have Putin give him more space on the issue until after the election, the Eastern European shield still has yet to be resolved. That plus the loggerheads between Moscow and NATO on Syria should have given Obama and Putin plenty to discuss. Instead, that task will fall to lower-level contacts:
Even as Obama scraps plans to meet with Putin, Secretary of State John Kerry and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel are preparing for meetings in Washington on Friday with their Russian counterparts. Snowden’s status is expected to be a main topic of conversation.
The lower-level meetings with Russia underscore that the U.S. cannot completely sever ties with the Kremlin. Russian transit routes are critical to the U.S. as it removes troops and equipment from Afghanistan. And despite deep differences over Syria’s future, the White House knows it will almost certainly need some level of Russian cooperation in order to oust Assad.
The question will be why Obama didn’t get offended enough earlier by the asylum to Snowden to present an immediate diplomatic reaction.
Update: Jake Tapper’s source in the administration — a “senior” official — says the summit wasn’t going to happen anyway regardless of Snowden. There just wasn’t anything to discuss at the top level, as the US and Russia are too far apart on issues for high-level talks to make any sense, the official tells Tapper:
But, the official said, Snowden was not the straw that broke the camels back; the feeling inside the White House was that the summit probably wasn’t going to happen anyway.
“We still have business to do with these guys on Afghanistan and Iran as well as other issues,” the official said, which is why Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Secretary of State John Kerry are still going to meet with their Russian counterparts this week.
While at first blush the added context could be seen as spin, it actually could suggest something negative – that relations between the U.S. and Russia were struggling even before Snowden landed in Moscow.
That’s hardly news, is it? We’re on opposite sides in Syria, Putin’s not doing anything about Iran, Obama has made concessions on missile defense to no avail … why would “struggling” relations be a surprise now? And wouldn’t a summit make some sense to improve the situation, even if just for a personal exchange?
Update/Correction: The summit was supposed to take place in Moscow, but the G-20 meeting will be in St. Petersburg. I’ve fixed the lead paragraph; thanks to FreeVillage on Twitter for the correction.