President Barack Obama is cancelling plans to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow next month – a rare diplomatic snub.
The move is retribution for Russia’s decision to grant temporary asylum to Edward Snowden, who is accused of leaking highly secretive details about National Security Agency surveillance programmes. It also reflects growing US frustration with Russia on several issues, including missile defence and human rights.
A top White House official says Obama still attends to plan the Group of 20 economic summit in St Petersburg, Russia, but has no plans to meet with Putin there one-on-one.
Obama said in an interview on Tuesday that he was “disappointed” by Russia’s move to grant Snowden asylum for one year. He said it also reflected the “underlying challenges” the US faces in dealing with Moscow.
“There have been times where they slip back into cold war thinking and a cold war mentality,” Obama said in an interview on NBC’s “The Tonight Show”.
The US was expected to alert the Russians on Wednesday morning about Obama’s decision, though the two presidents were not expected to speak directly. Obama and Putin last met in June on the sidelines of the Group of 8 summit in Northern Ireland.
US President Barack Obama’s decision to cancel a planned meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin is disappointing, but he is still welcome in Russia, a top Kremlin foreign policy aide said on Wednesday.
“We are disappointed by the US administration’s decision to cancel the visit of President Obama to Moscow planned in early September,” Putin’s foreign policy aide, Yuri Ushakov, told reporters.
“It is clear that the decision is due to the situation around the former US special services employee Snowden, which we did not create,” he added.
Instead of visiting Putin in Moscow, the president will add a stop in Sweden to his early September travel itinerary.
White House deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes said Russia’s decision last week to defy the US only worsened an already troubled relationship. And with few signs that progress would be made during the Moscow summit on other agenda items, Rhodes said the president decided to cancel the talks.
“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,” Rhodes said.
Obama’s decision is likely to deepen the chill in the already frosty relationship between the two leaders. They have frequently found themselves at odds on pressing international issues, most recently in Syria, where the US accuses Putin of helping President Bashar Assad fund a civil war. The US has also been a vocal critic of Russia’s crackdown on Kremlin critics and recently sanctioned 18 Russians for human rights violations.
Moscow has accused the US of installing a missile shield in Eastern Europe as a deterrent against Russia, despite American assurances that the shield is not aimed at its former Cold War foe. Putin also signed a law last year banning US adoptions of Russian children, a move that was seen as retaliation for the US measure that cleared the way for the human rights sanctions.
Secretary of State John Kerry and Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel are still preparing for meetings in Washington on Friday with their Russian counterparts. Snowden’s status is expected to be a main topic of conversation.
Russian transit routes are critical to the US as it removes troops and equipment from Afghanistan. And the White House knows it will almost certainly need some level of Russian cooperation in order to oust Syria’s Assad.
Some congressional lawmakers have called for Obama to also demand that Russia forfeit its right to host the G-20 summit. Others have spoken of boycotting next year’s Winter Olympics in the Russian city of Sochi.
Senator Chuck Schumer said on Wednesday that “Putin doesn’t deserve the respect after what he’s done with Snowden.” He told CNN, “I know what he’s doing. He’s trying to make Russia a big power again. To show him the respect at the bilateral talks doesn’t make sense.”
In his interview Tuesday, Obama defended his decision to attend the G-20 summit, an annual gathering of the world’s largest economies. Given the US role in an increasingly interdependent global economy, Obama said it made sense to have high-level representation.
The G-20 summit is scheduled to take place in St. Petersburg on September 5-6. Obama will make his first visit to Sweden ahead of the summit, though his itinerary is unclear.
Rhodes said Sweden has been an important US partner on clean energy issues and will be part of a US trade agreement being negotiated with the European Union.