After weeks of increasing tension over Russia’s handling of Moscow Sheremetyevo Airport transit lounge denizen Edward Snowden, US President Barack Obama finally decided to cancel his scheduled summit meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin. As Snowden’s time in Russia grew longer, the Obama administration continued to signal its displeasure over events and asking for Snowden’s return, and then began intimating the upcoming meeting was being threatened by this tension. Putin and Obama will still attend a larger multinational leaders’ meeting together at the St. Petersburg G-20 meeting on 5-6 September, but there will now be no separate meeting in Moscow between the two leaders. J. BROOKS SPECTOR takes a closer look.
Summits between American and Russian (or, pre-1990, with Soviet) leaders have usually been a reliable thermometer to measure the warmth or chilliness of the two countries’ bilateral relationship. While the way these meetings have taken place – and what has been discussed – has been important as in the way Nikita Khrushchev browbeat the new American president, John Kennedy after the failed Bay of Pigs invasion; cancellations of summits have also had their uses as signals. Nikita Khrushchev, for example, refused to host a long-planned meeting with President Dwight Eisenhower in 1960 after the Russians shot down an American high altitude U-2 aircraft flying over the Soviet Union to photograph missile sites. That meeting had been scheduled as the reciprocal event for Khrushchev’s visit to the US in 1959.
Obama’s decision to pass on a one-on-one meeting with Putin is the first time an American president has cancelled a publicly announced presidential visit in Russia since the end of the Cold War. Russia’s Prime Minister, Yevgeny Primakov, had once ordered his plane to turn around while actually en route to the United States in protest as the Kosovo war was about to start, and Putin cancelled participation at last year’s economic summit at Camp David. Meanwhile, Obama had skipped the previous year’s Asia-Pacific economic APEC summit in Vladivostok, Russia, but Obama had never actually publicly committed to attending that summit because it came in September of the hotly contested 2012 election year. Obama and Putin last met together at the G-8 meeting in Northern Ireland in June this year.
Putting their spin on the decision, the headline on the story about this decision from the Russian news service, Interfax, was headlined, “Cancellation of Obama’s Moscow trip is Cold War remnant – policy expert”. However, it is probably more accurate to say the cancellation was simply a symptom of a whole series of disagreements – some fundamental, some symbolic – between the two nations. And a few analysts have even argued cancelling the meeting might even be a better decision than going through with it, given all those disagreements. Otherwise, rancour emanating from that meeting over all those disagreements might have just made things worse between the two nations. Despite the cancellation of the summit, the two men will still be together at the upcoming G-20 meeting in St. Petersburg, but there they will be there amidst a larger crowd and so individual disagreements will likely be more muted than if they had met together by themselves.
Despite the lack of a direct meeting between the two national leaders, there will still be bilateral meetings at the ministerial level in the next several days, bringing the US secretary of state and defence secretary together with their Russian counterparts. On Tuesday, a State Department spokeswoman said that talks between Secretary of State John Kerry and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, and Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu and Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel would cover topics like Syria, Afghanistan, Iran, and the new START arms treaty. Russian deputy foreign minister Sergei Ryabkov commented in the American media that Russia expects a very intense discussion in these upcoming meetings since there are “sharp, controversial, and difficult questions” dividing the two nations.
The proximate cause of this summit cancellation, the White House says, was Russia’s decision to grant asylum to intelligence leaker Edward Snowden, “We have reached the conclusion that there is not enough recent progress in our bilateral agenda with Russia to hold a US-Russia Summit…. We believe it would be more constructive to postpone the summit until we have more results from our shared agenda,” the White House said. The statement added, “Given our lack of progress on issues such as missile defense and arms control, trade and commercial relations, global security issues, and human rights and civil society in the last twelve months, 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.”
Snowden, of course, is the now-former National Security Agency technical contractor who leaked documents and other details to “The Guardian” and “Washington Post” back in June about secret NSA programmes that gather data on telephone calls and emails on an astonishingly wide scale internationally. As the stories were being published, Snowden fled his home in Hawaii to Hong Kong and then on to Russia. He now has espionage charges in the US hanging over him. Until the Russians granted him asylum, Snowden had spent about a month in the airport’s transit facilities, as various potential asylum states appear to have yielded to American pressure not to receive him after all.
Following this Russian decision, a White House staffer added that Snowden’s asylum had deepened pre-existing tensions between the two countries. In response, the Russian government said it was disappointed by the move and that the invitation to bilateral talks remained in force. As far as the Russians were concerned, Putin’s foreign affairs adviser Yuri Ushakov said, “Russian representatives are ready to continue working together with American partners on all key issues on the bilateral and multilateral agenda.” He also said the invitation for Obama to meet with Putin remains open.
But there are other issues besides that new residential status of Edward Snowden that have been provoking a US-Russian contretemps. These include disagreements over how to deal with the long-running Syrian civil war (given Russia’s support of the al Assad government and the US’ increasing embrace of the rebels); Iran’s nuclear ambitions and Russia’s supplying of technology for Iran’s nuclear program; the emplacement of an anti-missile shield in central Europe; and some fairly vivid public disagreements over the international funding of human and civil rights NGOs in Russia. But these have simply been the most prominent of the issues that now appear to divide the two nations.
Apparently adding yet another rationale for putting off the meeting, the Obama administration’s decision to cancel participation was announced a day after Obama had appeared as a guest on Jay Leno’s internationally watched “Tonight Show”. On air, Obama condemned Russia’s newly promulgated anti-gay law, saying, “I have no patience for countries that try to treat gays or lesbians or transgender persons in ways that intimidate them or are harmful to them.” Then, returning to the Snowden theme, Obama added that although there is no US-Russian extradition treaty, he said the US has tried to cooperate with Russia on such cases in the past, but the Kremlin’s handling of this case is an instance of Russia slipping back into “Cold War thinking.”
Following the White House announcement, various members of Congress lent support to Obama – even as others had already urged him to cancel the meeting, arguing there had to be some consequences for Russia’s refusal to return Snowden to face espionage charges in the US. For example, New York Democratic Senator Charles Schumer praised the decision, saying, “The president clearly made the right decision. President Putin is acting like a schoolyard bully and doesn’t deserve the respect a bilateral summit would have accorded him.”
All of this has now come to be the prevailing texture of the bilateral relationship despite the expressed ambitions of the Obama administration, at least when it first came into office back in 2009, of resetting the prickly relations between the two nations. The deeper problem, lurking below the surface, of course, is that the two nations are no longer equivalent powers in terms of global influence or military strength and this has rankled deeply with Russian leaders – especially Vladimir Putin. But, so far at least, the two have not managed to find a way to cooperate with each other on mutually beneficial terms and ways.
Now if the Snowden saga had quietly ebbed away, perhaps by his ending up in a hospitable but off-the-beaten-path Latin American state like Ecuador, then that issue might just have become another one of those other on-going irritants in US-Russia relations. But once the Russians gave Snowden official permission to stay in Russia and move beyond the airport transit lounge, thereby elevating Snowden’s circumstances internationally, the Americans apparently felt they had to respond.
Now that the decision has been made, the St Petersburg G-20 meeting could have a rather embarrassing texture to it. The organizers of the table seatings will have lots of work to do to keep from having the two leaders bump into each other awkwardly at the various sessions of this larger meeting. DM
Photo: U.S. President Barack Obama (L) meets with Russian President Vladimir Putin during the G8 Summit at Lough Erne in Enniskillen, Northern Ireland June 17, 2013. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque
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