CREDIT: Kevin Lamarque / Reuters
President Obama will not be meeting with his Russian counterpart in September, the Associated Press reports, the latest in a series of setbacks in the relationship between the two countries.
The cancellation of the one-on-one meeting between the President and Vladimir Putin on the sidelines of the Group of 20 (G-20) summit in St. Petersburg is a rarity at such high-level events. While the move has been suspected for some time now, the White House made the snub official in a statement released on Wednesday.
“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,” White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said.
While downplayed in Carney’s statement, at the heart of the cancellation is Moscow’s decision to grant temporary asylum to former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden. Snowden first fled to Hong Kong, then Moscow after revealing he was the source of a series of leaks detailing the extent of NSA surveillance programs domestically and internationally. Lawmakers and pundits alike from across the ideological spectrum have urged the President to skip the summit over this slight or demand that the meeting be relocated from Russia.
In an appearance on The Tonight Show on Tuesday night, Obama indicated that he’s not particularly surprised by the recent actions of the Russian government, calling them “reflective of what’s been going on with Russia lately” and Putin’s at times backwards thinking. “There have been times where they slip back into Cold War thinking and Cold War mentality,” Obama said. “What I continually say to them and to President Putin is that’s the past.”
The first-term Obama administration put a great deal of stock in the so-called “reset” with Russia, hoping to forge stronger bonds between the two countries after years of mistrust. For a period that seemed to be working, with Russia siding with the U.S. in issuing stronger international sanctions on Iran over its nuclear program and agreeing to a reduction in nuclear arms as part of the New START treaty.
Since then, however, the U.S.-Russian relationship has chilled, particularly after the return of Putin to the presidency following a four-year layover as Russia’s Prime Minister. Putin has upon his restoration to the Kremlin cracked down on his political opponents launched a crusade against supporters of gay rights — which Obama condemned last night — and expelled the USAID, accusing it of meddling in politics.
The two have also clashed repeatedly over how to handle the ongoing civil war in Syria, with Russia and China vetoing several resolutions at the United Nations Security Council on the issue. At present, Washington and Moscow are trying to reach consensus on when to hold a large diplomatic summit to negotiate an end to the fighting — dubbed Geneva II — and who to invite. Russia has slammed the U.S. for its recent decision to arm the Syrian rebels as being counter to the process, though, while the U.S. has condemned Russia’s continuing sale of weapons to the Syrian government.
“We’ll still work with Russia on issues where we can find common ground, but it was the unanimous view of the president and his national security team that a summit did not make sense in the current environment,” Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes told the Associated Press. Those areas of common ground are seemingly fewer and farther in between these days but do exist. On Tuesday, State Department officials announced that the “2+2″ meeting between Secretary of State John Kerry and Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel and their Russian counterparts would still be taking place.
Likewise, the U.S. and Russia are still cooperating on helping to resolve the nuclear stand-off with Iran. Both are members of the P5+1 group — composed of themselves, France, the United Kingdom, China, and Germany — negotiating with Tehran from a common position. And Russian cooperation will prove vital in extracting soldiers and materials from Afghanistan as part of the drawdown there.
An Obama administration official told John Aravosis at America Blog that the “sudden cancellation of President Obama’s anticipated meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin during next month’s G20 meeting in Russia was in part due to the President’s concerns about the deteriorating gay rights situation in Russia.”