What happens if Obama cancels his Russia trip over Snowden?

The president reportedly may snub Putin in September if Russia continues sheltering the NSA leaker

Would Putin care?
(Image credit: AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

President Obama is considering canceling a September meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow over the Edward Snowden showdown.

Snowden, who leaked secret documents on the National Security Agency's intelligence gathering, has been holed up in a Moscow airport dodging espionage charges back home. This week he formally asked Russia for temporary asylum — and Moscow, to the frustration of U.S. officials, is considering the request.

The suggestion that Obama might call off the trip is being interpreted as an effort to discourage Moscow from sheltering Snowden, who is hoping to reach one of several Latin American countries offering him asylum but hasn't figured out how to get there without being nabbed by the U.S.

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What happens, though, if the president really does snub Putin?

The one-on-one talks — before Obama heads to a Group of 20 summit in St. Petersburg — were scheduled to give Obama and Putin a chance to iron out their differences on a host of critical issues, including Putin's support for Bashar al-Assad's regime in Syria, nuclear proliferation, and Russia's crackdown on Kremlin critics. "Canceling the summit, announced in June, would deal a blow to Obama administration efforts to smooth relations with Russia," says Roger Runningen at Bloomberg.

Some analysts, however, believe that Putin would be the big loser. "Canceling the meeting in Moscow would be seen as a direct slap at Mr. Putin, who is known to value such high-level visits as a validation of Russian prestige," says Peter Baker at The New York Times.

With this week's conviction of anti-Putin activist Alexei Navalny, on embezzlement charges the opposition says are entirely political, the Russian president certainly doesn't need any more headaches. Andrew Kuchins, director of the Russia program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, tells The Associated Press that a brush-off from Obama would embarrass Putin on the world stage at a very awkward moment.

"It would be saying at least two things to the Russians," Kuchins said. "That granting asylum to Edward Snowden was a bridge too far, and secondly that we don't feel like we're actually losing so much out of the cancelation of the summit because we didn't expect to get much out of it."

The White House — and just about everybody else — has shrugged off a call from Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) to boycott the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, if Moscow doesn't hand over Snowden. Skipping the meeting, however, would at least spare Obama the humiliation of acting like it's business as usual if Snowden is still hanging out in Moscow. Here's how Doug Mataconis at Outside the Beltway sees it:

It's possible, of course, that Snowden won't even be in Russia by the time President Obama gets there. If he isn't that may make this a moot issue to some extent. Yes, there are still other issues, such as Syria, between the U.S. and Russia, but the real awkwardness, I think, would be the idea of the president being in Moscow while Snowden is there living in asylum. Of course, if Putin and Obama talk, perhaps that asylum wouldn't last very long. [Outside the Beltway]

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Harold Maass

Harold Maass is a contributing editor at TheWeek.com. He has been writing for The Week since the 2001 launch of the U.S. print edition. Harold has worked for a variety of news outlets, including The Miami Herald, Fox News, and ABC News. For several years, he wrote a daily round-up of financial news for The Week and Yahoo Finance. He lives in North Carolina with his wife and two sons.