The standoff between the U.S. and Russia over fugitive former security contractor Edward Snowden may threaten a planned summit between Presidents Barack Obama and Vladimir Putin as the case further strains an already frayed relationship.
With less than two months to go before Obama is scheduled to leave for Russia, administration officials have repeatedly refused to confirm that the president will keep a commitment to meet with Putin for one-on-one talks in Moscow before heading to a Group of 20 nations summit Sept. 5-6 in St. Petersburg.
“You know that the president and his advisers are asking what kind of a trip he can have to Moscow with such a big gorilla in the room,” said Stephen Sestanovich, who was U.S. ambassador-at-large responsible for policy toward Russia and states of the former Soviet Union from 1997 to 2001. “Anybody involved in planning that trip is sweating bullets.”
Canceling the summit, announced in June, would deal a blow to Obama administration efforts to smooth relations with Russia and would be a direct challenge to Putin’s prestige. Russia assumed the G-20 presidency for the first time last December and Putin is the host for the group’s annual summit.
Putin “wants to have the meeting; I don’t think there’s any question about that,” said James Collins, who was U.S. ambassador to Russia from 1997 to 2001.
White House press secretary Jay Carney this week was explicit about the U.S. insistence that Russia expel Snowden, who is holed up in a Moscow airport while seeking asylum, and that discussions with Putin’s government are continuing. When asked whether the Obama-Putin summit will go on as planned, Carney refused to directly answer.
“The president intends to travel to Russia in September for the G-20 Summit, and I don’t have any further announcements with regard to that travel,” Carney said July 17. Pressed on whether that includes the Moscow stop, he said, “I just have nothing else to say on it.”
Russia hasn’t received any “official notification” that Obama’s plans have changed, Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, told reporters today. Russia has never handed anyone over and “won’t do so,” he said. “But neither Snowden nor anyone else should engage in anti-American activity. We hope that the situation won’t affect Russia-U.S. ties.”
While both governments have insisted that the Snowden case shouldn’t upend cooperation on broader issues such as counterterrorism and nuclear proliferation, they remain at odds over a host of other issues. Those include Putin’s support of Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria and Russia’s prosecution of government critics.
Carney yesterday called sentencing of anti-corruption activist Alexey Navalny to five years in prison for embezzlement “the latest example of a disturbing trend of government actions aimed at suppressing dissent and civil society in Russia.” Navalny was freed today pending appeal.
Two U.S. Senators, Republican Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Democrat Charles Schumer of New York, introduced a non-binding resolution urging Russia to turn over Snowden to the U.S. If it doesn’t, the resolution says Obama should consider recommending that the G-20 economic summit be held elsewhere.
“On multiple fronts, Russia is becoming one of the bad actors of the world,” Graham said in a joint statement released today. Schumer said Putin is “too eager to stick a finger in the eye of the United States” and that the U.S. should “send a crystal clear message to President Putin about Russia’s deplorable behavior.”
By leaving open the question of the summit going forward, the White House has delivered a strong message, said Andrew Kuchins, director of the Russia program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
“They’re trying to put some squeeze” on Russia, Kuchins said. “This may put a little bit of pressure on Putin to be a little more forthcoming, and deliver” Snowden.
The Russian leader has an incentive to act to avoid having a previously announced summit with Obama spoiled or casting a shadow over the G-20 gathering, said Sestanovich, now a senior fellow for Russian and Eurasian studies at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington.
“Putin can’t win having Snowden on his hands at the beginning of September,” he said. “Any intelligence benefit that they’ve gotten from Snowden’s presence, they’ve already gotten. Any political benefit from tweaking the U.S., they’ve already gotten. Now, it’s just a complication in power politics.”
Collins, now the director of the Russia program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said the White House message to Putin is “you have to find a way to deal with this issue”
Snowden, 30, who exposed classified U.S. programs that collect telephone and Internet data, faces prosecution on espionage and other charges. He applied for temporary asylum this week at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport and has been confined to the transit area there since arriving on a flight from Hong Kong on June 23. The U.S. has revoked his passport.
“He’s got no intention to go anywhere, he wants to stay here,” Snowden’s Moscow-based lawyer Anatoly Kucherena said in an interview yesterday. Snowden applied for a 12-month renewable refugee status in Russia on July 16. Kucherena said he will be granted temporary permission to enter the country within the next week while authorities continue to process his asylum claim. Federal Migration Authority spokeswoman Zalina Kornilova declined to comment.
Putin has accused the U.S. of stranding Snowden in Moscow by putting pressure on other countries to prevent his travel through their airspace and deny him refuge in Latin America, where Venezuela, Nicaragua and Bolivia have indicated they’d be willing to take him.
U.S. officials, from Obama on down, have called on Russia to deliver Snowden into U.S. custody. Obama spoke with Putin by telephone July 12. The two leaders last met June 17 at the Group of Eight Summit in Northern Ireland, a week before Snowden landed at Sheremetyevo Airport.
Even though the U.S. doesn’t have an extradition treaty with Russia, “it is our view that there is substantial legal justification for him to be returned to the United States,” Carney said, adding, “We don’t want this matter to do harm to our bilateral relations.”
Putin this week expressed hope that the controversy will blow over.
“International relations are considerably more important than squabbles between intelligence services,” Putin said.