Obama cancels visit to Putin: It's about much more than Edward Snowden

Obama cancels visit to Moscow for a September summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Edward Snowden's asylum was a major reason, but it's only one of many.

Evan Vucci/AP/File
Obama cancels visit: President Obama meets with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Enniskillen, Northern Ireland, earlier this year. Mr. Obama is canceling plans to meet with Mr. Putin in Moscow next month.

President Obama’s cancellation of a planned Moscow summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin in September reflects more than just White House ire over Russian asylum for fugitive leaker Edward Snowden.

The decision also comes amid growing US consensus that the lack of common ground between the two powers on major international issues – from Syria to missile defense and human rights – meant a full-day US-Russia summit was no longer warranted.

Despite the summit cancellation, some US-Russia experts say they still expect to see Mr. Obama sitting down with Mr. Putin on the margins of the G20 summit in St. Petersburg on Sept. 5-6 – if only to salvage the fledgling counterterrorism cooperation between the two countries in the wake of the Boston Marathon bombings.

“It’s one thing for the White House to cancel a summit that was to take place in Moscow, it’s quite another for Obama to refuse to see his host in St. Petersburg,” says Dimitri Simes, president of Washington’s Center for the National Interest and a US-Russia expert. “If they do that, the Russians are likely to stop the enhanced counterterrorism that has followed the Boston bombings,” he adds. “One has to ask, how effective is that kind of US diplomacy?”   

Nevertheless, the accent from the White House Wednesday was on the chill in US-Russia relations. As if to underscore the key roles that both the lack of US-Russia cooperation and the Snowden affair played in Mr. Obama’s decision, the White House quickly announced that Obama will now stop in Sweden on his way to Russia for the G20 summit.

The White House statement on the president’s stop in Sweden Sept. 4-5 notes that Sweden is a “close friend and partner to the United States,” and that Sweden “plays a key leadership role on the international stage” in areas of interest to the US.

Sweden is also at the center of a controversy over another secrets leaker and fugitive, Julian Assange – the WikiLeaks founder who is holed up in the Ecuadoran Embassy in London to avoid extradition to Sweden, where he is wanted for questioning in connection with sexual-assault allegations.

In its statement on the summit cancellation, the White House listed arms control, missile defense, trade relations, and human rights as among the issues that would have been discussed by the two leaders but which have not had enough progress to necessitate a summit.

“We’ll still work with Russia on issues where we can find common ground, but it was the unanimous view of the president and his national security team that a summit did not make sense in the current environment,” said White House deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes.

Obama’s transition from a believer in a “reset” of relations with a modernizing Russia to disappointment over lack of progress in bilateral relations – especially in the past year as Mr. Putin returned for a second term as president last September – was on full view Tuesday night as Obama appeared on NBC’s "Tonight Show with Jay Leno."

“There have been times when [the Russians] slip back into cold war thinking and a cold war mentality,” Obama said, citing the asylum granted Mr. Snowden as “disappointing” but indicative of the “underlying challenges” of the US-Russia relationship.

Obama sought to blunt Russian claims that it was acting in the interest of human rights in granting Snowden asylum, emphasizing what he sees as Russia's accelerating retreat from basic human and political rights. The president singled out recent Russian legislation aimed at squelching gay rights, saying he has “no patience for countries that try to treat gays and lesbians and transgendered persons in ways that intimidate them or are harmful to them.”

The White House cancellation of the Obama-Putin summit “will not be surprising to the Putin government,” says Mr. Simes of the Center for the National Interest. But steps beyond that curtail diplomatic cooperation would start to have a more profound impact, he adds.

Simes notes that a planned “2+2” meeting Friday of the US secretaries of state and defense with their Russian counterparts is expected to go ahead. If that meeting goes well, “I would be surprised if an Obama-Putin meeting does not take place in St. Petersburg,” Simes says.

Some US officials said Wednesday that they did not anticipate Obama meeting alone with Putin in St. Petersburg.

Obama was under bipartisan pressure from members of Congress to cancel the Putin summit. Sen. Charles Schumer (D) of New York welcomed the cancellation Wednesday, blasting Putin for “acting like a schoolyard bully [who] doesn’t deserve the respect a bilateral summit would have accorded him.”

But if canceling the Moscow summit was intended to alter Putin’s behavior in some way, the effort is likely to be a disappointment, Simes says.

“Putin does not derive his legitimacy from meeting with Obama,” he says. On the contrary, he says the cancelled summit is more likely to hearten Putin’s “nationalistic constituency in Russia.”

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