Russia’s decision to grant temporary asylum to fugitive National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden is a blow to President Barack Obama’s desire to “reset” U.S. relations with its Cold War enemy.
The Russian action yesterday puts in doubt a summit planned for next month between Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin, and drew calls from U.S. lawmakers for retaliatory actions likely to further strain relations between the two military powers. The U.S. is evaluating the “utility” of a summit, according to White House spokesman Jay Carney, who said the president is “extremely disappointed.”
Obama’s call early in his first term for improving relations has been hindered by conflicts over human rights, Syria, and even U.S. adoptions of Russian orphans, as well as by the chilly personal relationship between the two leaders.
“We’re far apart on a lot of issues, we don’t have a lot of leverage, and the Russians seem to like it this way,” said Barry Pavel, director of the Scowcroft Center at the Atlantic Council, a Washington policy group. “This is part of the pattern of relations since the Obama administration began.”
Ariel Cohen, a Russia scholar at the Heritage Foundation, another Washington policy research organization, called the Snowden decision a “slap in the face to the U.S. and President Obama” and a further sign that “under Putin, the vector of Russian foreign policy is away from the West and away from the United States.”
Senator Robert Menendez, the New Jersey Democrat who chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, called the action “a setback” to U.S.-Russia relations, while Republican Senator John McCain of Arizona called for the White House to “fundamentally rethink our relationship with Putin’s Russia.”
The administration’s business with Russia extends far beyond the flap over Snowden, whom administration officials routinely dismiss as a computer hacker.
Russia has supported international sanctions to pressure Iran to abandon its suspected pursuit of nuclear weapons. The two nations have sparred over Syria, as Russia used its UN veto to block efforts to censure the Assad regime.
“Obama, being in his second term, is more preoccupied by his legacy rather than winning the domestic electorate,” Lilit Gevorgyan, senior analyst for Russia and the Commonwealth of Independent States at Englewood, Colorado-based IHS Global Insight, said in an e-mail. “To achieve a peace deal in the Middle East, quell Syria and end the Iranian standoff, Russia’s support would be instrumental. Hence, Obama may still chose to make the trip to Moscow if there are informal assurances that he would not leave Russia empty-handed and some progress can be made in Syria and Iran.”
The Obama administration, eager to withdraw most U.S. troops from Afghanistan by the end of next year, also is counting on Russia to approve transit rights through some former Soviet republics for American forces and equipment. Obama also is seeking an accord on reductions in both countries’ strategic nuclear arsenals beyond the New Start nuclear treaty negotiated during his first term.
U.S. ties with Russia are “based in realism, and it is a simple fact that the so-called reset in our relations with Russia produced positive benefits” in terms of U.S. national security, Carney said yesterday at the White House.
Pavel of the Atlantic Council was less optimistic. “If Putin cared about these things, he’d have Snowden on a plane,” he said.
The economic relationship between the two countries is less significant. According to an April 2013 report by the nonpartisan U.S. Congressional Research Service, U.S. exports to Russia in 2012 were $10.7 billion, up from $9.3 billion in 2008, and American imports from Russia were $29.3 billion, up from $26.8 billion in 2008.
“Russia and the United States have never been major economic partners, and it is unlikely that the significance of bilateral trade will increase much in the near term,” the report found. “However, in some areas, such as agriculture, Russia has become an important market for U.S. exports. Russia is the largest foreign market for U.S. poultry.”
“U.S. exports to Russia of energy exploration equipment and technology, as well as industrial and agricultural equipment, have increased as the dollar has declined in value.” the research service said. “Russian demand for these products will likely grow as old equipment and technology need to be replaced and modernized.”
Snowden’s arrival at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport from Hong Kong on June 23 disrupted efforts to improve relations and smooth the way for the September summit. As Snowden waited in airport limbo pending a Russian decision, U.S. officials repeatedly refused to confirm that Obama would keep a commitment to meet with Putin in Moscow in conjunction with a Group of 20 nations economic summit Sept. 5-6 in St. Petersburg.
As recently as eight days ago, Secretary of State John Kerry appealed to Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in a phone call. Kerry “reiterated our belief, the belief of the United States, that Mr. Snowden needs to be returned to the United States, where he will have a fair trial, that Russia still has the ability to do the right thing,” State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki told reporters July 24.
Instead, Snowden left the airport yesterday after receiving temporary asylum for one year in Russia. Giving Snowden refuge lets Putin position Russia’s democracy as equivalent to America’s and demonstrate internationally “that democracies come in all different forms,” said Matthew Rojansky, director of the Russia Program at the Wilson Center, also a Washington policy group.
“They can say, ‘We’ll give him amnesty just like you, America, have given plenty of Russian dissidents asylum,’” Rojansky said.
The Cold War legacy of mistrust lingers between the U.S. and Russia, Rojansky said.
“You can never truly reset, and you can never truly forget,” Rojansky said. “The idea you can wipe the slate clean of all the little slights since the end of the Cold War and the Cold War itself, it’s absurd.”
In March 2009, then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton presented Lavrov with a red “reset button” intended to symbolize efforts to improve relations. The gesture misfired because the word “reset” was incorrectly translated into Russian as “overcharge.”
“You got it wrong,” said Lavrov, commenting on the translation as the two pushed the reset button together.
His comment could have applied to the attempted reset itself, as a succession of disputes has led to a tit-for-tat dynamic that Kerry, in his Senate confirmation hearing on Jan. 24, said has set back relations.
“We have some ground to make up,” Kerry said, referring to a Russian decision to bar Americans from adopting Russian orphans in response to Congress’s approval of a law that banned Russian human-rights violators from entering the U.S. He said relations had “slid backwards for the last couple of years.”
The increasing uncertainty about next month’s summit follows Putin’s decision not to attend a meeting with Obama in May 2012, one sign of how he’s pulled back from ties with the American leader.
The snub was particularly acute because in an effort to make Putin more comfortable, Obama had moved the meeting to the presidential retreat in Camp David, Maryland, from the margins of a NATO summit in Chicago to which Putin wasn’t invited.
“Russia is playing a role with which it’s been comfortable for a long time and has become something of a default -- that is, a counterweight to the United States on major international issues,” said Rojansky.
The U.S. still has influence with Russia, Rojansky said. “There’s always leverage, the question is what you want to lever,” he said, adding that the planned summit is important to Putin since “it’s always significant to be seen to be meeting with the president of the United States.”
Even so, there’s little indication that a summit would produce anything substantive right now, Rojansky said.
“It’s pretty clear the president’s top priority with Russia is the nuclear agenda, not Snowden,” Rojanksy said. “He’s given several major speeches on the issue that have fallen on deaf ears in Russia.”
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