Obama cancels summit with Putin. Was Snowden the last straw?

The White House said Russia's grant of asylum to Snowden was a 'factor' in the cancellation, but experts say it was not the only cause.

Jason Reed/Reuters/File
US President Barack Obama (r.) meets with Russia's President Vladimir Putin in Los Cabos, Mexico, in June 2012. The White House announced today that Mr. Obama has canceled a meeting with Mr. Putin planned for next month in Moscow.

Edward Snowden, the ex-National Security Agency contractor who allegedly leaked up to 20,000 sensitive documents to the global media, is settling down in Russia after gaining temporary asylum last week and is reportedly awaiting imminent visits by his father and friends from the US.

But his presence in Russia remains a distinctly unsettling factor in a Moscow-Washington relationship that was already increasingly troubled in the months before Mr. Snowden showed up. But some Russian analysts say they fear the Snowden affair, unexpected and unscripted as it was, could turn out to be the tipping point at which a chilling relationship becomes a frozen one.

Today the pessimists appeared vindicated as the White House canceled an upcoming summit between Barack Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin, citing frustrations over how to deal with an increasingly intransigent Russia. 

"Snowden imparted a lot of negative charge to the US-Russia relationship, and he and his revelations arrived at a moment when they could be most harmful," says Alexander Konovalov, president of the independent Institute for Strategic Assessments in Moscow. "As long as he remains our guest, any bilateral contacts between Russia and the US are going to be extremely difficult."

The State Department confirmed yesterday that important and far-ranging talks that John Kerry and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel have planned with their Russian counterparts will go ahead this Friday in Washington. On the agenda is, of course, Snowden, but also a laundry list of outstanding joint concerns between the two countries, including Syria, Iran, and the coming NATO pullout from Afghanistan.

Speaking to Jay Leno on the Tonight Show Tuesday night, Mr. Obama said he will be attending the G20 summit in the Russian city of St. Petersburg in a month's time – because of the meeting's global economic importance.

But today the White House canceled Obama's planned bilateral meeting with Putin on the G20 sidelines, citing Snowden in particular and Russia's uncooperative stance in general.

"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," Ben Rhodes, the White House deputy national security adviser, told journalists.

Snowden's lawyer, Anatoly Kucherena, told journalists Tuesday that his client was settling in nicely in his new digs at an "undisclosed location," presumably in Moscow, and was looking forward to a visit from his father, Lon Snowden, who has become one of his son's staunchest defenders.

Mr. Kucherena said Snowden has some important decisions to make, including what level of contact he should have with the media, and whether he should take a job to augment his dwindling savings. Russia's version of Facebook, VKontakte, has already offered him a job and the Federation Council, the upper house of parliament, has offered him a position with its commission that's looking into how to protect the data of Russian Internet users from outside surveillance.

All these decisions "will be made at a family council" after Snowden's father arrives in Moscow later this month, Kucherena said.

On Mr. Leno's show, Obama appeared to defend continued contacts with the Kremlin, but said he was "disappointed" with its decision to take Snowden in.

"There are times when [the Russians] slip back into cold war thinking and cold war mentality. What I continually say to them and to President [Vladimir] Putin, that’s the past," Obama said. "There’s no reason why we shouldn't be able to cooperate more effectively than we do."

Experts say there are many vital issues that should require unbroken US-Russia dialogue, including nuclear proliferation, counter-terrorism, Afghanistan, how to curb Iran's nuclear program, and efforts to find some sort of negotiated solution to the expanding civil war in Syria.

"Both presidents understand the necessity to go on cooperating," says Pavel Zolotaryov, deputy director of the official Institute of USA-Canada Studies in Moscow.

But the list of sore points between the US and Russia is long and growing. It includes very major and real strategic differences, especially over US plans to build a globe-girdling anti-missile shield and Russia's reluctance to join Obama in another round of nuclear arms cuts.

The relationship has also been aggravated by perceptions in the West that the Kremlin is cracking down on protest and dissent, and introducing intolerant laws that roll back civil rights, especially for LGBT Russians.

Last December, Obama signed the Magnitsky Act, which introduces financial and visa sanctions on Russian officials alleged to be involved in human rights abuses. That drew a white hot reaction from the Kremlin, and the State Duma subsequently passed a law banning US citizens from adopting Russian orphans.

Russia-US ties were going steadily downhill, with mutual acrimony rising by the day, when Snowden triggered a whole new – and, for the Kremlin, unwelcome – dispute by arriving unannounced at Moscow's Sheremetyevo airport on June 23 and subsequently asking for temporary asylum in Russia.

At this point almost any unscripted event, such as a member of the US rock group Bloodhound Gang brashly desecrating a Russian flag during a concert in Ukraine, can disproportionately aggravate US and Russian public perceptions of one another and send the relationship spiraling further downward.

"All in all, I cannot see any agenda we could pursue that would draw us closer, especially if we want not only to talk but also to reach agreements with one another," says Alexei Makarkin, deputy director of the independent Center for Political Technologies in Moscow.

"Russia is splitting off from the West more and more, politically and psychologically, with each passing day. We consider the West to be doing abnormal things, while they seem to think we're sliding back into the Middle Ages," he adds. "This divide is just going to keep growing."

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