US-Russia relations: A canceled summit, a troubled relationship


No love lost.


Jewel Samad

There were many good reasons for President Barack Obama to scrap a one-on-one meeting with his Russian counterpart in Moscow next month, but NSA leaker Edward Snowden wasn’t one of them.

At least not a major one. “Our decision to not participate in the summit was not simply around Mr. Snowden,” Obama said during a news conference on Friday. “It had to do with the fact that, frankly, on a whole range of issues where we think we can make some progress, Russia has not moved. And so we don't consider that strictly punitive.”

Analysts point to disagreements on missile defense, nuclear reduction and how to handle the Syrian crisis as the main obstacles in the way of a summit. “There just was no good reason for a summit,” says Celeste Wallander of American University. “There were no areas of cooperation that merited the president’s time.”

Don’t tell that to the American public, however. Fueled by some increasingly belligerent Cold War-style rhetoric from Congress, the general perception is that cancelling the summit was a sharp snub to Vladimir Putin for granting Snowden temporary asylum after he was holed up in a Moscow airport for more than a month.

Which shows just how much Washington has lost control of the narrative, says Steven Pifer of the Brookings Institution. He’s described American actions as tinged with “irony, hyperbole and outright silliness.”

With the secretary of state issuing a direct appeal for Russia to “do the right thing” by returning Snowden, and the attorney general promising that the young analyst wouldn’t be tortured or killed if he were to come back to the United States, the administration has made itself look just a bit foolish.

“Washington has mismanaged this whole business,” Pifer said in an interview. “They created an expectation of Snowden’s return that was never going to be met.”

Snowden’s revelations of a massive surveillance program targeting Americans, Europeans and much of the rest of the world have sparked debate at home and acrimonious discussions abroad.

Regardless of what one thinks about Snowden’s action, Pifer says, “from the Russians’ point of view, Snowden is a defector; they do not return defectors and we do not return defectors.”

Washington has tried from the beginning to portray Snowden as a criminal, not a political fugitive. His release of classified government files to the media makes him a lawbreaker, officials argue, not a whistleblower exposing government wrongdoing, as Snowden himself claims.

“I do not think that Mr. Snowden is a patriot,” Obama said during a news conference on Friday afternoon. “[He] has been charged with three felonies.”

If Snowden really thinks he’s in the right, Obama said, he should return to the United States and make his case in court.

Putin’s decision to grant temporary asylum has made that extremely unlikely, and the White House isn’t pleased.

“The Obama administration had made it clear that they expected Russia not to harbor someone who was wanted for criminal activities,” Wallander says.

Moscow’s refusal, Russian observers say, is a function of Putin’s sense of himself and his position in the world.

Putin is “trying to sustain an image of Russia as the one country, the one major power in the world that can stand up to the United States' pressure,” Dmitry Trenin of the Moscow Carnegie Center told NPR.

Obama’s decision to cancel the summit will sting somewhat, Pifer says. He had been anticipating the event as a sign of his power and prestige, a validation of his status as leader of a great power.

“He wanted to say ‘look at me, I count,’” Pifer says. “Russia is afraid of becoming irrelevant.”

With good cause, apparently.

“When I talk to the Joint Chiefs, they say that Russia is not a main priority,” Pifer adds.

So many were startled to hear Mitt Romney proclaiming Russia to be America’s “number one geopolitical foe” during the presidential campaign last year.

Other rhetoric from Congress these days is also reminiscent of Cold War days.

Republican senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham released a statement on Thursday urging the administration to adopt a more adversarial stance toward Russia.

“We obviously agree with President Obama’s decision to cancel his planned meeting with President Putin in Moscow in the wake of the Russian government granting asylum to Edward Snowden,” they said. “But now we must move beyond symbolic acts and take the steps necessary to establish a more realistic approach to our relations with Russia.”

Those steps, the senators say, should involve NATO expansion, completion of a missile defense program in Europe, and a significant widening of the Magnitsky Act, which forbids entry to the United States of some Russian officials implicated in human rights abuses.

The measure is named for Sergei Magnitsky, a Russian lawyer who was arrested and died in custody after he exposed police corruption.

Those prescriptions would be counterproductive, Wallander believes.

“There’s absolutely no possibility that we’re heading back to the Cold War days,” she says. “All this rhetoric is just a distraction from the real challenges of dealing with Russia.”

Events such as meetings between Secretary of State John Kerry and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel with their Russian counterparts, which took place in Washington on Friday, are more important than high-profile summits between two leaders who just don’t have that much to say to each other, Wallander adds.

“Russia’s membership in the [World Trade Organization] will ultimately matter more than the new START treaty,” she said of the nuclear arms treaty signed in 2009, “if Russia is integrated into the world economy and its citizens are secure and prosperous.”

That may take a while.

After joining the WTO last year, Russia is having a rocky start.

It’s also becoming somewhat of an international pariah thanks to its recent ban of “homosexual propaganda” that has some clamoring for a boycott of the Olympic games in the Russian resort of Sochi next year.

Moscow’s crackdown on NGOs and dissidents has also sent alarm signals throughout the world.

More from GlobalPost: This chart shows just how anti-gay Russia is

Public opinion may also have influenced Obama’s decision to cancel the summit, according to Pifer.

“As Putin has adopted increasingly repressive measures at home, he has become less attractive as an international partner,” he wrote in The Moscow Times. “Engaging with him risks becoming a political liability in the U.S.”

Wallander believes that much of the anger directed at Russia represents frustration that the dreams spawned by the fall of the Soviet Union have largely remained unrealized.

“There was so much hope and expectation that Russia would become a responsible actor,” she says. “Everyone thought that what was holding Russia back was the Soviet system. Now it is becoming clear that what is holding Russia back is its current system, which is authoritarian and corrupt.”