President Obama has canceled a scheduled one-on-one meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin following Russia's decision to grant asylum to Edward Snowden, White House officials said Wednesday.
The cancelation of the September summit represents the most significant fallout yet in the escalating spat between Russia and the U.S. over Snowden, the infamous NSA leaker. Snowden had been holed up in a Moscow airport for a month before Russian officials, over protestations by the U.S., granted him asylum for one year.
It's the first time since the end of the Cold War that a U.S. president has canceled a scheduled meeting with his Russian counterpart, according to the New York Times.
In a statement, the White House said Russia's "disappointing decision" to grant Snowden asylum was just one reason why Obama had nixed the meeting. In addition, the statement cited a "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."
"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," the statement said.
This comes at an extremely delicate time for U.S.-Russian relations, and it could set back some long-sought goals of the Obama administration.
The U.S. wants to convince Russia, one of the closest allies to Syria's embattled President Bashar al-Assad, to pull back its support as Syria descends deeper into a bloody civil war. The Obama administration and other world leaders have demanded Assad step down for his involvement in that conflict and for allegedly using chemical weapons on opposition forces, a war crime.
The snub could also jeopardize the administration's desire, which Obama laid out in June, for a new nuclear arms reduction deal with Russia. And it could complicate America's efforts to improve relations with Iran — and in particular to steer that nation away from its nuclear ambitions once newly elected President Hassan Rouhani assumes office. Russia hasn't been too eager in the past to aid western efforts aimed at curbing Iran's nuclear program.
The cancelation could mean that Washington and Moscow no longer feel like they can achieve anything together, wrote the Washington Post's Max Fisher.
But there's another way to read this: as an indication not that the reset failed on its own merits so much as that it's being abandoned because neither country seems to feel it's quite worth the trouble. The big problem may not be that Moscow and Washington disagree — although they certainly do — but that they just don't care enough about those disagreements to go through the trouble of fixing them. [Washington Post]
In a Tuesday interview with Jay Leno, Obama suggested as much, saying Russia had a habit of "slip[ping] back into Cold War thinking and a Cold War mentality," making it difficult to negotiate with Moscow on much of anything. An aide to Putin responded that it was clear the cancelation was really just about Snowden, and blamed the U.S. for creating that mess in the first place.
"All this situation shows [is] that the U.S. is still not ready to build relations with Russia on equal footing," that aide, Yury Ushakov, said, according to RT.
Several American lawmakers had asked Obama to cancel the meeting. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) even suggested the U.S. boycott the 2014 Olympics in Sochi, Russia, to pressure Moscow into turning over Snowden.
However, the administration has announced no plans to go quite that far, but will instead continue to hold other diplomatic talks with Russia. The president will still attend the upcoming G20 summit in St. Petersburg later this year, and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry will still meet Friday with their Russian counterparts.
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