Feature

A frosty showdown between the U.S. and Russia

U.S.-Russian relations reached a low point when President Obama canceled a planned summit with President Vladimir Putin.

What happened U.S.-Russian relations reached a low point this week when President Obama canceled a planned summit with President Vladimir Putin days after the Kremlin granted asylum to National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden. The White House said Obama had scrapped the meeting after concluding that the two countries were simply too far apart on a range of issues, from missile defense and human rights to Putin’s continued support for embattled Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Spokesman Jay Carney said Putin’s “disappointing decision” to grant Snowden temporary asylum last week was also a factor. The two presidents had been due to hold one-on-one talks in Moscow next month following a meeting of leaders of the world’s main industrialized nations in St. Petersburg, Russia. Obama still plans to attend that meeting.

The White House had signaled for weeks that it was growing increasingly tired of Putin’s intransigence, especially on the fate of Snowden, the former intelligence analyst wanted by the U.S. for leaking details of the NSA’s surveillance programs. In an appearance this week on NBC’s The Tonight Show,Obama said Putin’s protection of Snowden—who until last week was holed up in a Moscow airport—reflected the challenges of dealing with Russia. “There have been times where they slip back into Cold War thinking,” he said. But the Kremlin insisted it had no choice but to grant Snowden asylum, as the U.S. had refused to sign a bilateral extradition agreement with Russia.

What the editorials saidObama made the right call, said The New York Times. Since Putin regained the presidency in 2012, he has tried to boost his strongman reputation with repeated insults to the U.S. He shipped arms to Syria’s dictator even as Obama called for Assad to go. He cut off American adoptions of Russian children. Now he has decided “to essentially stick a thumb in Obama’s eye” by granting Snowden asylum. The only outcome of Obama meeting with the Russian leader “would be to add to Putin’s domestic political capital and his already considerable self-esteem.” “Throwing a hissy fit” over Snowden achieves nothing, said Bloomberg.com. The U.S. needs to talk to Putin “to understand him, to get a sense of his values.” That might prove useful in negotiations over more important matters, like Iran’s nuclear program or stopping Syria’s civil war. By sacrificing this precious intelligence-gathering opportunity for a 30-year-old hacker, the U.S. does “more damage to itself than to Putin.”

What the columnists saidWhy did “Putin thumb his nose at the U.S. in the Snowden affair?” asked Josef Joffe in The Wall Street Journal. “Because he could.” Putin saw how quickly Obama backed down in 2009 when Moscow protested his plans for an anti-missile defense system in Europe. And he smelled weakness in Obama’s failure to stop Russia’s arming of Assad. So if you’re Putin, “why not probe more deeply?” Canceling one meeting isn’t enough to put Putin in his place, said Nicholas Wapshott in Reuters.com. Obama must hit the autocrat where it really hurts: his bank balance. He could cancel Russia’s $572 million helicopter deal with the Afghan army, or scrap the $753 million NASA contract with Russia to ferry our astronauts into space.

Far from getting tough with Putin, Obama should be thanking him, said Andrew Kuchins in CNN.com. The ex-KGB agent doesn’t like public discussions about state surveillance of citizens, “even if they are U.S. citizens,” so Snowden’s behavior will be tightly controlled by his new hosts. Should he step out of line and go public with more NSA documents, Putin will crush him like a bug.

Ultimately, Obama can’t do much about Putin’s provocations, said Michael Crowley in Time.com. The Russian leader “is not an easily intimidated man.” Some close observers have even speculated that he might be suffering from megalomania. “And much like China, Russia isn’t a country the U.S. can simply bend to its will”—especially not when oil, its main export, sells for well over $100 a barrel. For the foreseeable future, expect America’s relationship with Russia to stay “about as warm as a Siberian pool party.”

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