President Obama canceled an upcoming summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Wednesday, a rare, deliberate snub that reflects the fresh damage done by the Edward Snowden case to an important relationship already in decline.
Obama had planned to visit Moscow for a symbolic one-on-one meeting at the Kremlin with Putin ahead of next month’s Group of 20 economic summit in St. Petersburg, Russia. In unusually blunt terms, the White House announced Wednesday that Obama will skip the Moscow stop because there is too little hope of a productive meeting.
“Following a careful review begun in July, we have reached the conclusion that there is not enough recent progress in our bilateral agenda with Russia to hold a U.S.-Russia summit in early September,” White House press secretary Jay Carney said in a statement.
With that announcement, Obama effectively wrote off more than a year of effort to build cooperation with Putin, a shrewd but famously irascible politician with a deep suspicion of U.S. motives.
Gone, too, are most of the administration’s first-term hopes of a remade U.S.-Russian partnership — the so-called reset — that emphasized common approaches to global problems despite acknowledged policy differences.
On Tuesday, Obama told Jay Leno of “The Tonight Show” that he is frustrated by Russia’s protection of Snowden, a former National Security Agency contractor who is wanted on espionage charges after leaking to the media highly classified documents about U.S. surveillance programs. Snowden last week was granted temporary asylum in Russia for up to a year.
“There are times when they slip back into Cold War thinking and Cold War mentality,” Obama said. “What I continually say to them and to President Putin: That’s the past.”
Carney cited a “lack of progress” with Russia on a broad range of issues including missile defense and arms control, trade and commercial relations, and human rights issues.
“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,” he said.
Although Putin clearly wanted the prestige of an at-home summit with his U.S. counterpart, he apparently was unwilling to offer much in exchange for it.
Russia holds a veto at the U.N. Security Council, where differences with the United States over international problems are often on display. Russia is also a member of nearly every major international diplomatic, political or economic forum, wielding outsize influence compared with its true military or economic heft in the post-Cold War era.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Secretary of State John F. Kerry will still hold a planned meeting Friday with Russia’s defense and foreign ministers. The deepening civil war in Syria, where Russia and the United States are backing opposing sides, will be a central topic.
A proposed peace conference sponsored jointly by Russia and the United States has been shelved indefinitely, and Russia has long opposed stronger punishment for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad at the United Nations.
State Department spokeswoman Jennifer Psaki said that although the timing is wrong for a symbolic presidential meeting, the lower-level contacts are important to preserve. She named Afghanistan, Iran and North Korea as areas of cooperation.
“We’re not afraid to make public or state clearly where we have disagreements,” Psaki said.
The split between Russia and the United States over Syria is increasingly irrelevant in the face of a widening humanitarian crisis and battlefield reversals suffered by the anti-Assad rebels, Syrian and other human rights activists said. The United Nations estimates that more than 100,000 people have died in the two-year-old civil war. Many more are homeless, jobless or under siege.
“There is going to have to be a negotiated solution, and the longer it takes to reach that, the more people are going to die,” said Ian Bassin, campaign director for Avaaz, a global online human rights group. Avaaz plans to plaster buildings near the State Department with posters mocking Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov before Friday’s meeting.
A Syrian activist in besieged Homs who goes by the pseudonym Abu Bilal said that Russia and the United States are “dithering” while innocents die.
“It is obvious now to the Syrian people that the international community does not want to help,” Abu Bilal said in an interview Wednesday, speaking through an interpreter. “We have seen the regime cross every red line, and nothing happens.”
Instead of visiting Moscow ahead of the G-20 summit, Obama will travel to Stockholm on Sept. 4, the White House said. He and Putin will see each other at the larger international meeting in St. Petersburg.
For weeks, the White House had signaled that it was considering canceling the Kremlin visit.
“In the specific areas that we have set out to make progress with the Russian government, we just hadn’t,” said a senior Obama administration official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss diplomatic issues. The official noted that Obama’s national security advisers all agreed with the cancellation.
The matter-of-fact tone of the eventual announcement was in stark contrast to the tortured explanations that Carney and others offered for Putin’s decision to cancel a visit to the United States in May 2012, shortly after he reassumed the presidency from protégé Dmitry Medvedev.
U.S. officials insisted then that Putin’s absence from a Group of Eight meeting was not a snub, although the gathering had been moved from Chicago to the presidential retreat at Camp David, Md., largely to accommodate the Russian leader.
Putin returned to Russia’s top job last year, after four years as prime minister. He had previously held the presidency for two terms, and in many ways never left power. Putin was a strong force behind the scenes during Medvedev’s tenure, despite the warmer face Medvedev presented to the West.
Putin made pointed criticism of the United States a main theme of his campaign, at one point accusing then-Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton of inciting street protests against him. In office, he has moved to curtail U.S. activity and influence in Russia, expelling the U.S. Agency for International Development and limiting the work of other charitable or pro-democracy groups.
Putin’s foreign affairs adviser told reporters that the Kremlin was disappointed with the cancellation and blamed it on the Snowden affair, which he said was not Russia’s fault.
“Russia is ready to continue working with its U.S. partners on all key items on the bilateral and multilateral agendas,” Yuri Ushakov said.
He said that the invitation to Obama remains open and that the onus is on Washington to improve matters.
“This problem testifies to the remaining unpreparedness of the United States to build an equal relationship,” he said.
A Washington Post-ABC News poll last month found that a majority of Americans, 56 percent, said Obama should not cancel his visit if Russia helped Snowden, while 37 percent said he should.
Mark Katz, a Russia analyst at George Mason University, said Obama had no reasonable option but to call off the meeting with Putin.
“I think that would have been disastrous for Obama,” Katz said. “From the point of view of American domestic politics, if he had gone ahead to Moscow with Snowden still there, you could just imagine how Obama’s critics would have reacted, that this was an example of appeasement.”
Kathy Lally in Moscow and Scott Wilson and Capital Insight polling analyst Scott Clement in Washington contributed to this report.