Edward Snowden

Obama's Russia reset goes into reverse gear after Putin snub

Obama came into office seeking a new relationship with an old adversary, but Putin's return to the Russian presidency signalled a return to hostility

PUBLISHED : Friday, 09 August, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 09 August, 2013, 4:21am

US President Barack Obama's decision to snub Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin sends their relationship to a new low.

Four years after declaring a new era between the two former cold war adversaries and after some early successes in forging fresh co-operation, Obama concluded that the two sides had grown so far apart again that there was no longer any point in sitting down with Putin.

His decision to deny the Russian leader a one-on-one meeting in Moscow that would have served as a high-profile opening act to the Group of 20 summit in St Petersburg next month marks the first time an American leader has called off such a trip in decades.

Even before Russia granted temporary asylum to former security contractor Edward Snowden, Obama's advisers were questioning the value of the planned one-on-one meeting next month because Putin hasn't responded to a series of US initiatives, according to a US administration official who asked not to be identified to discuss the relationship.

Unlike the cold war nuclear stand-off, 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 US shifts its attention to China's rising economic and military power.

"We weren't going to have a summit for the sake of appearances, and there wasn't an agenda that was ripe," said Benjamin Rhodes, the US president's deputy national security adviser. "We're not in any way signalling that we want to cut off this relationship," he added, but meetings from now on will be held at lower levels. "We'll continue to calibrate whether or not the relationship improves to the point where we can reopen the prospect of a presidential initiative."

Russian officials blamed Obama for the deadlock and suggested he was motivated by domestic politics. Yuri Ushakov, an adviser to Putin, faulted the United States, saying it did not want to build stronger ties between the two countries.

"This very problem underlines the fact that the United States is still not ready to build relations on an equal basis," he said after US ambassador Michael McFaul delivered news of Obama's decision in Moscow. The situation with Snowden "was hardly created by us," he added.

Alexei Pushkov, chairman of the Russian parliament's foreign affairs committee, said the move heralded the end of the Obama administration's "reset" policy.

"The bilateral relationship has come to an impasse," he said in a telephone interview. "It makes it all the more necessary for the two presidents to meet and to try to work out a new agenda for the relations."

The White House had already planned to review the relationship after the September meeting to decide whether it was still worth as much of Obama's limited time and political resources. The cancellation made clear that the White House decided it was not, a calculation crystallised when US officials learned of Russia's asylum decision in Snowden's case at the same time the news media did.

The Snowden issue was only the latest example of the distance between the two leaders. Russians haven't responded to US 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 programmes, US officials quickly made clear that a constructive summit would be impossible if Russia granted him asylum, the official said.

The official, though, said the US still considers it essential to forge a co-operative relationship and discouraged the idea the US will further react by cosying up to former Soviet bloc countries.

"Snowden was obviously a factor, but this decision was rooted in a much broader assessment and deeper disappointment," said another White House official who was not authorised to be identified. "We just didn't get traction with the Russians. They were not prepared to engage seriously or immediately on what we thought was the very important agenda before us."

Andrew Kuchins, director of Russia studies at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, said the administration would leave the ball in Putin's court. "At some point you've just got to make the judgment that it's not working, it's not going anywhere," he said. "Why don't we let him hang in the breeze for a while?"

Obama came to office in 2009 vowing to rebuild ties after years of tension. Working with then-president Dmitry Medvedev, Obama signed the New Start treaty that slashed nuclear arsenals, established a critical supply corridor for troops in Afghanistan, helped Russia finally join the World Trade Organisation and agreed on sanctions on Iran.

But Putin's return to power last year signalled a return of hostility. The Kremlin threw out American aid and democracy organisations, cracked down on internal opposition and backed President Bashar al-Assad in Syria's civil war. Putin skipped a Group of Eight summit meeting hosted by Obama last year.

For his part, Obama did not attend an Asia-Pacific meeting hosted by Putin last autumn, though it was during his re- election campaign and he had never planned to go. The US Congress passed the Magnitsky Act imposing sanctions against Russian human rights violators, and Moscow retaliated by cutting off American adoptions of Russian children.

Obama reached out recently to no avail. He sent his national security adviser to Moscow in April with a plan to share missile defence data and made a speech in Berlin in June proposing further nuclear arms reductions. But officials said Russia had offered no substantive response.

The lack of prospects for agreement in Moscow next month was reinforced on Monday when Rose Gottemoeller, the US undersecretary of state for arms control, met Sergei Ryabkov, the Russian deputy foreign minister, in Brussels. Aides said Obama decided that same day to cancel the summit meeting. By Tuesday night, he was venting his irritation with Putin on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno.

"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, 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 co-operate more effectively than we do."

The cancellation was accompanied by a decision by Obama to visit Sweden instead. The president has also invited leaders of Russia's Baltic neighbours to visit the White House, both moves that the Kremlin may see as jabs.

But US Secretary of State John Kerry and Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel will go ahead with a planned meeting today with Russia's foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, and defence minister Sergei Shoigu. Officials say the meeting will test whether relations could move forward now that they have been downgraded.

Bloomberg, The New York Times