Vladimir Putin’s Russia has slid back toward the suspicions and mistrust of the Cold War contest with the United States, President Obama said Friday, adding that it is appropriate to “reassess” a relationship damaged most recently by the case of National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden.
In a White House news conference, Obama defended his decision to cancel a planned summit meeting in Moscow with Putin next month. Obama blamed Putin, who reassumed the presidency last year, for souring what Obama called a productive partnership forged with former president Dmitry Medvedev.
“I think we saw more rhetoric on the Russian side that was anti-American, that played into some of the old stereotypes about the Cold War contest between the United States and Russia,” Obama said of Putin’s return to power last year. “I've encouraged Mr. Putin to think forward as opposed to backwards on those issues, with mixed success.”
That blunt assessment overshadowed day-long military and diplomatic talks with Russia that both sides called positive. Despite wide differences over Syria and U.S. plans for a missile shield in Europe, U.S. and Russian officials agreed to cooperate where they could. Russia invited the United States to take part in an upcoming contest of tank-maneuver skills.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said the U.S. decision to scrap the summit next month was shortsighted and attached too much importance to the Snowden case.
“To say that this particular instance is a good reason for questioning the relationship, I think, is not wise,” Lavrov said at his own news conference after meetings in Washington with Secretary of State John F. Kerry, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu.
But Obama said the decision to bow out of the symbolic one-on-one meeting with Putin at the Kremlin reflected much more than U.S. pique over Russia’s decision last week to grant temporary asylum to Snowden. The Russian decision allows the fugitive former NSA contractor to live and work in Russia for up to a year.
Obama cited differences with Russia over Syria and human rights and said it was “probably appropriate for us to take a pause, reassess where it is that Russia’s going, what our core interests are, and calibrate the relationship so that we’re doing things that are good for the United States and hopefully good for Russia as well.”
Obama rejected recent calls to boycott the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, next year in protest of a new law making it a crime to “propagandize” homosexuality.
“Nobody’s more offended than me by some of the anti-gay and -lesbian legislation that you’ve been seeing in Russia,” but U.S. athletes should compete, Obama said.
The canceled summit represents a White House acknowledgment that despite a continued need to cooperate with Russia where possible, an effort to make nice with Putin has failed.
Putin maintains a deep suspicion of U.S. motives and campaigned for the presidency on a sometimes bitterly anti-
Still, the tension with Russia is nothing personal, Obama insisted.
“I know the press likes to focus on body language, and he’s got that kind of slouch, looking like the bored kid in the back of the classroom,” Obama said of Putin, a former KGB official.
“But the truth is that when we’re in conversations together, oftentimes it’s very productive.”
Opening the joint talks taking place a few blocks away at the State Department, Kerry joked that diplomacy is sometimes a contact sport.
“Sergei Lavrov and I are old hockey players, and we both know that diplomacy, like hockey, can sometimes result in the occasional collision,” Kerry said. “So we’re candid, very candid, about the areas in which we agree but also the areas in which we disagree.”
William Branigin contributed to this report.