President Barack Obama's decision to snub Russian President Vladimir Putin sends their relationship to a new low.
In effect, Obama is replacing his effort to “reset” relations between the two nations with Cold War-style realpolitik, after a series of Russian actions contrary to U.S. interests.
Even before Russia granted temporary asylum to former security contractor Edward Snowden, Obama's advisers were questioning the value of a planned one-on-one meeting next month because Putin hasn't responded to a series of U.S. initiatives, according to an administration official who asked not to be identified to discuss the relationship.
Obama yesterday canceled his Moscow visit with Putin, denying the Russian leader a high-profile opening act to the Group of 20 summit that will follow in St. Petersburg Sept. 5 and 6. Obama will attend the G-20 meeting.
The president today declined to answer questions about the cancellation following a White House meeting with Greek Prime Minister Antonis Samaras and said he would address the issue at a news conference tomorrow.
“I think this is a very good move, and not something Putin would like,” said Barry Pavel, director of the Scowcroft Center at the Atlantic Council, a policy group in Washington. “He would like to be standing next to Obama at a summit and saying, 'Yes, Russia is still a superpower' to his people.”
Unlike the Cold War nuclear standoff, when a conflict between the two nations risked mutual destruction, the downturn in relations has little immediate consequence. Rather, it reflects the setbacks already encountered by Obama and the diminished importance of Russia as the U.S. shifts its attention to China's rising economic and military power.
The extent of the U.S.-Russia gap is reflected in recent comments by both sides.
Obama, appearing on NBC's “Tonight Show with Jay Leno” earlier this week, expressed frustration that Putin's administration occasionally slips into a “Cold War mentality.”
“The administration hasn't been getting much from its cooperative approach to Russia,” said Pavel. “The U.S. canceled the last phase of the missile program that was of most concern to Russia -- not a thing in response. Syria, we know what's been going on there; human rights and civil society in Russia, we haven't seen anything there.”
Yuri Ushakov, Putin's foreign-policy aide, said his government is “disappointed” by Obama's decision and that the invitation to visit Moscow is still open.
“This problem underlines that the U.S. is still not ready to build relations with Russia on an equal basis,” Ushakov told reporters on a conference call. He said the situation with Snowden “was hardly created by us.”
The Snowden issue was only the latest example of the distance between the two leaders. Russians haven't responded to U.S. initiatives on arms control and trade, including proposals for high-level dialogues and business advisory forums, according to the Obama administration official.
When Snowden fled to Moscow from Hong Kong after exposing top-secret National Security Agency surveillance programs, U.S. officials quickly made clear that a constructive summit would be impossible if Russia granted him asylum, the official said.
The official, though, said the U.S. still considers it essential to forge a cooperative relationship and discouraged the idea the U.S. will further react by cozying up to former Soviet bloc countries.
The summit cancellation follows Putin's resistance to U.S. initiatives, particularly Obama's vision of deeper cuts in nuclear weapons conveyed in a letter delivered earlier this year by then-National Security Adviser Tom Donilon.
“Making further progress at the moment doesn't seem to be in the cards, particularly on the issue of nuclear weapons and arms control,” the centerpiece of Obama's June speech at Berlin's Brandenburg Gate, said Ivo Daalder, president of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs and a former U.S. ambassador to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.
Further, Daalder said, Putin behaved “in a way that everybody knows is an attempt to stick a finger in the eye when it comes to the Snowden issue.” Lower-level talks such as a planned meeting tomorrow between the U.S and Russian foreign and defense ministers should continue, Daalder said.
White House press secretary Jay Carney said the decision to cancel the summit was prompted by differences with the Russian government over missile defense, trade, human rights and approaches to Iran and Syria, as well as the standoff over Snowden. Instead, Obama will go to Stockholm Sept. 4-5, Carney said in e-mailed statement.
State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said yesterday that the talks between the ministers are still planned for tomorrow. The discussions will cover topics such as North Korea and Iran, efforts to arrange a conference of the warring parties in Syria and “disagreements on missile defense, arms control and human rights,” she said.
Ariel Cohen, a senior research fellow for Russian studies and energy policy at the Heritage Foundation, a Washington policy institute, said the split “is certainly the biggest since the end of the Cold War.”
“They had to send a very strong signal and try and shake the Kremlin out of its anti-American funk,” Cohen said.
Obama's “reset” policies paid some dividends early in his first term, as the U.S. and Russia agreed on additional nuclear arms reductions in the New Start treaty and Russia cooperated at the United Nations with sanctions on Iran and North Korea in efforts to thwart those countries' nuclear ambitions.
Obama signed legislation in December revoking Cold War-era trade restrictions after Russia joined the World Trade Organization with U.S. support a year ago. Exporters including Caterpillar Inc., based in Peoria, Illinois, and Chicago-based Boeing Co. pushed for the change, saying it would give them better access to the growing Russian market.
Relations have chilled since Putin returned to the presidency in May 2012 and canceled plans to attend the Group of Eight meeting Obama was hosting at Camp David, Maryland. Putin sent Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev in his place.
Since then, Putin and Obama have sparred over how to end the Syrian civil war, U.S. adoptions of Russian orphans, and the U.S response to Russia's civil and political rights record. In late 2012, Russia ousted the U.S. Agency for International Development, which he called intrusive and unneeded, and in May Russian authorities displayed photos of a wig-wearing U.S. diplomat they accused of being a spy.
The two leaders discussed issues for their summit in a phone call July 12, during which Obama pressed for Snowden's return, according to a White House statement. The U.S. has filed espionage charges against the former employee of government contractor Booz Allen Hamilton Holding Corp. for disclosing classified information on U.S. programs that collect telephone and Internet data.
Speaking with Jay Leno, Obama said Russia's decision on Snowden reflects “some underlying challenges that we've had with Russia lately.” He said there haven't been “major breaks in the relationship” and cited examples of cooperation, such as with the Boston Marathon bombing investigation.
“There have been times where they slip back into Cold War thinking and a Cold War mentality,” Obama said. “And what I consistently say to them, and what I say to President Putin, is that's the past and we've got to think about the future, and there's no reason why we shouldn't be able to cooperate more effectively than we do.”