President Barack Obama canceled next month’s summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow after Russia’s refusal to turn over fugitive Edward Snowden, exposing one of the biggest rifts between the two military powers since the end of the Cold War.
White House press secretary Jay Carney said the cancellation was prompted by differences with the Russian government over missile defense, trade, human rights and approaches to Iran and Syria over the last year, as well as the standoff over Snowden.
“We have informed the Russian government that we believe it would be more constructive to postpone the summit until we have more results from our shared agenda,” Carney said in a statement. The president will instead travel to Sweden on Sept. 4 and 5 prior to attending a meeting of the Group of 20 leaders that Putin is hosting in St. Petersburg, Russia.
Canceling the one-on-one meeting with Putin in Moscow before the G-20 is a blow to administration efforts for a “reset” in relations between the two countries that Obama has been seeking since he took office in 2009.
Ariel Cohen, a senior research fellow for Russian studies and energy policy at the Heritage Foundation, a Washington policy institute, said the split revealed by the summit cancellation “is certainly the biggest since the end of the Cold War.”
“They had to send a very strong signal and try and shake the Kremlin out of its anti-American funk,” Cohen said of the U.S. action. “This is one measure. And if they’re consistent, there should be more.”
An analyst in Moscow, Fyodor Lukyanov, head of the research group Foreign and Defence Policy Council, disagreed, saying there would ultimately be little consequence from canceling the meeting.
“The G-20 will pass, this wave will pass, and the Snowden question will gradually pass,” he said by telephone. Had the Moscow summit gone ahead, it would have been “rather non-substantial anyway,” he said.
Yuri Ushakov, Putin’s foreign-policy aide, said his government is “disappointed” by Obama’s decision and that the invitation to visit Russia is still open. He blamed the U.S. for the stalemate in relations.
“This problem underlines that the U.S. is still not ready to build relations with Russia on an equal basis,” Ushakov told reporters on a conference call. He said the situation with Snowden “was hardly created by us.”
It’s not the first time a meeting between the two leaders has been scuttled. Shortly after he returned to the Russian presidency, Putin in May 2012 canceled plans to attend the Group of Eight meeting that Obama was hosting at Camp David, Maryland. He sent Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev in his place. Many of the differences between the U.S. and Russia then are the same ones the administration cited today.
While Obama previously has sought to diminish Snowden’s importance, calling him a “hacker” whose case shouldn’t jeopardize U.S. foreign policy priorities, he said last night that he was “disappointed” in Russia’s decision to grant Snowden temporary asylum. He said it showed the difficulty the U.S. has in dealing with Putin’s government.
“There have been times where they slip back into Cold War thinking and a Cold War mentality,” Obama said on NBC’s “Tonight Show With Jay Leno.” “And what I consistently say to them, and what I say to President Putin, is that’s the past.”
The U.S. decision was conveyed to Russian officials through diplomatic channels, according to an administration official. Obama didn’t talk to Putin about the cancellation, according to the official, who asked for anonymity to discuss internal communications.
In a diplomatic step designed to maintain relations, the White House said Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Secretary of State John Kerry will meet with their Russian counterparts in Washington on Aug. 9 “to discuss how we can best make progress moving forward on the full range of issues in our bilateral relationship.”
Obama for weeks has insisted that Russia turn over Snowden, a former computer contractor for the National Security Agency who exposed two secret government surveillance programs. Snowden ended up in Moscow after fleeing first to Hong Kong. Russia granted him a year’s asylum earlier this month, ending his 39-day stay in a Moscow airport.
“Even though we don’t have an extradition treaty with them, traditionally we have tried to respect if there’s a lawbreaker or an alleged lawbreaker in their country, we evaluate it and we try to work with them,” Obama said on the Leno show. In Snowden’s case, “They didn’t do that with us.”
Obama has been pressured by U.S. lawmakers to take retaliatory actions against Russia, recalling the days of Cold War tensions between two military foes. Senators Charles Schumer, a New York Democrat, and Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican, have urged Obama to cancel the Moscow summit and seek to move the G-20 meeting out of Russia.
“The president clearly made the right decision,” Schumer said today in an e-mailed statement. “Putin is acting like a schoolyard bully and doesn’t deserve the respect a bilateral summit would have accorded him.”
Obama’s action also was backed by Republican Ed Royce of California, the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
“This should help make clear that the Russian government’s giving Edward Snowden ‘refugee’ status is unacceptable,” he said.