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With more at stake, US and Russia cool war of words over l'Affaire Snowden (+video)

The Edward Snowden affair elicited a round of threats and needling from US and Russian officials, but the two powers have appeared to pull back, mindful they have more consequential mutual interests.

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“I do hope and expect that whatever has been traded between us [over the Snowden affair] is not going to affect our relations and the other important issues we have to deal with,” says Sergey Kislyak, the Russian Federation’s ambassador to Washington.

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Noting that Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov are scheduled to meet next week to discuss Syria, Ambassador Kislyak says “Syria is too important an issue to both of us” for the two countries to get sidetracked by the Snowden case.

“Arguably it [Syria] is more important to us, given its closer proximity to us and the threat of spillover,” he adds, “so no, we don’t want other things to get in the way.”

In early May, Kerry and Mr. Lavrov agreed on a plan for holding an international conference to reach a political settlement of Syria’s conflict, but little progress has been made since then. United Nations officials now say they see little chance a conference could still be organized for July, the most recent target date for the meeting.

Some US-Russia experts who focus on what they say is a grave deterioration of political rights and freedoms in Russia under Putin insist that the US is simply playing into Moscow’s hand by pursuing relations. The Obama administration simply stands by, they say, as Russian officials deflect attention from rising rights abuses in Russia by turning up their criticisms of the US.

“The Russian government demonizes us on the one hand … and yet they want to meet with us and to be legitimized by us,” says David Kramer, president of Freedom House in Washington.

Others take a realist view of the relationship and find there are just too many common interests between the two powers for the US to make a point by reducing US-Russia contacts.

“We don’t need to praise the way Russia” is governed, “but there are things we want in the world” – stopping Iran’s nuclear progress, reining in North Korea, cooperation on terrorism – “and in many of these areas, Russia plays an important role,” says Paul Saunders, executive director of the Center for the National Interest in Washington.

While it’s true that in many of their common interests, the US and Russia have “somewhat different priorities,” Mr. Saunders insists there are no American interests “that are directly opposed to a vital Russian interest.” And that reality, he says, argues for maintaining the relationship and not letting it be derailed even by legitimate concerns like the state of human rights in Russia.

But Mr. Kramer says the US has got very little from Moscow in exchange for the Obama administration’s “de-linkage” of human rights issues from US pursuit of other areas of cooperation with Russia.

In fact given the little common ground he sees between the two governments, and what he considers to be the corrosive manner in which the Russians use the US-Russia relationship, Kramer says he sees little reason for Obama to take part in the summit scheduled with Putin for September.        

“I don’t know what they’re going to talk about, frankly,” he says.

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