President Barack Obama’s decision to scrap a meeting in Moscow with Russian President Vladimir Putin reflects the White House’s growing frustration with the Russian government over its embrace of intelligence leaker Edward Snowden, as well as its reluctance to engage over a host of issues that are key to the relationship.
The decision to cancel the talks, announced Wednesday during Obama’s trip to Los Angeles, came after he’d told comedian Jay Leno in an interview the night before that he was disappointed by Russia’s decision to give temporary asylum to Snowden, who faces espionage charges at home after leaking information about U.S. government surveillance programs.
The rebuke, which came after a year of deteriorating relations between the superpowers, was viewed as an indication that the White House doesn’t see much gain for Obama, with Moscow resisting efforts to engage in talks over issues that include a new nuclear arms treaty, trade and investment.
“There will be a temptation to say this was due to Snowden. That was a minor factor,” said Steven Pifer, a Russia specialist at the Brookings Institution, a research center in Washington. Pifer added that it became apparent in recent weeks that Moscow was unwilling to move on any of the U.S. priorities. “The question became why go to Moscow when there’s no progress on issues important to the White House, and when you’d probably get some political grief at home because of Putin’s domestic repression and the Snowden case. So they decided to pull the plug.”
But canceling the meeting is unlikely to result in the administration’s desired effect: cooperation from Putin, said Matthew Rojansky, the director of the Wilson Center’s Kennan Institute on Russia.
“This is not the way you get results, by whacking them on the knuckles,” Rojansky said. “We’re starting to push pretty close to a line of deep violation of diplomatic protocol. It’s a pretty deep affront.”
He noted that the U.S. needs Russian cooperation on a number of concerns, including counterterrorism efforts, Iran’s nuclear program, Syria’s civil war and as a supply line as NATO troops withdraw from Afghanistan.
He said the decision to call off the summit might have broader implications after a year of rocky relations and difficulty moving legislation through Congress.
“This is a White House that’s now thinking, ‘Damage control, back out, don’t throw good money after bad,’ ” Rojansky said.
There was little to no domestic backlash for Obama from the decision. A bipartisan chorus of lawmakers who are angry with Russia over Snowden applauded the move.
“This should help make it clear that the Russian government’s giving Edward Snowden ‘refugee’ status is unacceptable,” said Rep. Ed Royce, R-Calif., the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
Human rights groups also praised the decision, citing Putin’s campaign against civil society groups, the banning of American adoptions of Russian orphans and the prohibition of gay pride events and gay adoptions.
The White House had said since Snowden gained asylum a week ago that it would review the “utility” of the summit. Press Secretary Jay Carney said Wednesday that the review had determined “there is not enough recent progress in our bilateral agenda with Russia.”
In a statement, Carney said there’d been little movement on a host of issues, including missile defense and arms control, trade and commercial relations, global security, human rights and civil society and that the U.S. thought “it would be more constructive to postpone the summit until we have more results from our shared agenda.”
The White House said Obama would attend the Group of 20 economic summit of leading rich and developing nations in St. Petersburg in early September, but rather than meet with Putin in Moscow as planned, he’d travel to Sweden.
The Kremlin said it was disappointed but that the invitation for Obama to visit still stood.
The Russian news agency Itar-Tass quoted presidential aide Yuri Ushakov as saying the U.S. decision was linked to Snowden.
“This situation illustrates that the U.S. is not ready to build equal relations with Russia,” Ushakov said. “The invitation remains in force. We’re ready to further work with American partners on key bilateral and international issues.”
But experts in U.S.-Russian relations say American officials report that Russia has not been willing to cooperate on those issues.
“We just haven’t been getting any response from Moscow on these proposals,” said Andrew Kuchins, the director of the Russia and Eurasia program at the Center for Strategic & International Studies. “In that environment . . . it’s pretty difficult to justify the president spending that additional amount of time in Moscow with Putin.”
Conversations between the two sides will continue: Secretary of State John Kerry and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel will meet with their Russian counterparts Friday in Washington, a sign that Kuchins said indicated that neither side “wants to give up on the relationship.”
Obama said in the Leno interview that the two nations had cooperated on counterterrorism measures, including the Boston Marathon bombing last spring and the war in Afghanistan. But Moscow has charged that a planned U.S. missile-defense system for Europe is a deterrent against Russia, and Obama expressed frustration with Putin during the interview.
"There have been times when they slip back into Cold War thinking and a Cold War mentality," Obama said on “The Tonight Show.” “And what I consistently say to them, and what I say to President Putin, is ‘That’s the past, and we’ve got to think about the future, and there’s no reason why we shouldn’t be able to cooperate more effectively than we do.’”
The rebuff is not without precedent in a relationship that’s turned increasingly frosty. Putin sat out the U.S.-hosted Group of Eight meeting of leading industrial nations at Camp David in May 2012, instead sending Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev – a move widely interpreted as a snub.
Obama and Putin tried to portray some bonhomie when they appeared together at a summit in Mexico a month later, but Putin sat expressionless as Obama talked about what Putin called “the Syria affair,” biting his lip and staring at the floor. Putin was terse. Obama spoke nearly four times as long.