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In a rare diplomatic rebuke today, President Barack Obama canceled his Moscow summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
The decision reflected both U.S. anger over Russia’s harboring of National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden and growing frustration within the Obama administration over what it sees as Moscow’s stubbornness on other key issues, including missile defense and human rights.
Obama will still attend the Group of 20 economic summit in St. Petersburg, Russia, but a top White House official said the president had no plans to hold one-on-one talks with Putin while there.
Instead of visiting Putin in Moscow, the president will add a stop in Sweden to his early September travel itinerary.
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From NPR and WBUR Boston, I'm Robin Young.
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YOUNG: But first to President Obama's announcement today that he's canceling next month's one-on-one summit with President Vladimir Putin in Russia. One of the reasons given his statement: Russia's disappointing decision to grand Edward Snowden temporary asylum. President Obama is still going to attend the G20 economic summit in St. Petersburg, but instead of visiting Putin in Moscow, he will add a stop in Sweden.
The Kremlin says it's disappointed, and the invitation to the president still stands. Steven Pifer is director of the Arms Control Initiative at the Brookings Institution. Steven, put this in context. Is this unusual for high-powered world leaders, you know, for one to RSVP no?
STEVEN PIFER: Well certainly it is not usual to cancel the summit this late in the game, but I don't think this is really about Edward Snowden. I think this is more about the fact that - and we've been hearing this for some weeks from administration officials - that on the big issues for the president, the issues where they hoped to make progress in Moscow, nuclear reductions, missile defense, trade investment, they were getting absolutely no substantive movement for the Russians.
So the question because does Moscow summit make sense when there are going to be no real outcomes that are going to be moving the ball forward in terms of the U.S.-Russian relations?
YOUNG: Well, it's interesting you say that because in the statement from the White House, all of those items are listed before Snowden is even mentioned. They say we value the achievements made with Russia in the presidents' first terms, including the new START treaty, cooperation on Afghanistan. However, given our lack of progress on things like missile defense and arms control, trade, commercial relations, global security - so a lot of things listed before Snowden is even mentioned.
But perception is reality. Won't people immediately think the big problem is Snowden?
PIFER: I think that is a potential problem in part because I don't think either Washington or Moscow had managed the Snowden case particularly well. Washington and Moscow have a long history, going back decades, in how you deal with defectors, and in the past they've shown that they can isolate those cases from undermining the broader relationship.
But again what I've been hearing for several weeks is the concern about the Moscow summit was not so much about Snowden but really was if the president goes there, at the end of the day is he going to have something to show for it in terms of moving his agenda forward. And I think the White House reached the conclusion that was not going to happen, and going there for a summit that would produce no benefits when there would be I think a political cost at home, certainly the president would get some grief from Congress and elsewhere about going to meet with Putin given political repression there, given the Snowden case.
They figured that the trip was not really worth it.
YOUNG: Yeah, but as you're alluding to, the White House might be far more concerned about other things, including Syria. Explain how that might factor into this.
PIFER: Well certainly you now have a fairly workmanlike dialogue between Secretary Kerry and his Russian counterpart, Foreign Minister Lavrov on Syria.
YOUNG: And the dialogue is needed because President Putin is being accused by the U.S. of helping Syrian President Bashar al-Assad fund the civil war there. Russia is on the side of Assad's regime there.
PIFER: There are a couple reasons where I think the Russians are going to be pursuing a different policy than we would like in Syria. One is they see Assad as an ally. They don't have many allies to lose. But second they asked the question if Assad goes, what comes in behind him. And I don't think the West has a good answer for that question, and the Russians can imagine a number of scenarios much worse than Assad.
But it seems to me that Secretary Kerry and Foreign Minister Lavrov can have that dialogue. Going to Moscow was not going to be the opportunity for President Obama to persuade President Putin to drop his support for Assad. There has been confirmation that the Two Plus Two Meeting, the meetings of Secretary Kerry and Secretary Hagel with their Russian counterparts will go ahead on Friday, and they can continue to discuss the full range of issues between the two countries.
YOUNG: Right, and no need for the president to, as you say, waste any political capital by having fruitless meetings. But wondering, one last item that's been in the headlines is Russia's recent anti-gay laws and whether or not U.S. athletes and the U.S. should boycott the upcoming Olympics. Does that factor into this? It wasn't mentioned in the White House statement. They do mention human rights issues, so maybe it goes in that category.
PIFER: Yeah, I think the recent Russian anti-gay laws are part of the concern that the White House has about Russia moving in the wrong direction, moving away from the more democratic state, moving to constrained civil society, moving to limit the possibilities of the opposition. And there were some real concerns about that.
And again, that raises a certain cost in going to meet with President Putin because you're going to be criticized for it, and if the meeting with Putin is going to yield no outcomes of interest to you, it's a fairly understandable call.
YOUNG: So Steven Pifer, you've said this is not usual. How big a deal is it, and what happens now between the two countries?
PIFER: My sense is that the administration will signal that it wants to find ways to work pragmatically with Russia. And so there are - this is not going to be the end of the relationship. This is not a new Cold War. This is just a calculation that this particular meeting between the presidents didn't make any sense at this particular time.
So you're still going to have full engagement, and I would have to think that if the Russians begin to show some interest in moving on some of these issues that the White House would be prepared to engage.
YOUNG: But if they don't? You know, I mean, there's a frosty relationship. Does it go - you say it's not a new Cold War, but what then happens?
PIFER: It's going to be a bumpy relationship, but hopefully both in Washington and in Moscow, the sides realize that on some questions, controlling nuclear proliferation, Iran, North Korea, there are common interests. So one of the challenges is going to be finding ways to work in a pragmatic way where the interests of the two countries align while acknowledging that there are going to be differences on questions like human rights, like Syria and such.
That's one of the arts of diplomacy is getting that balance where being able to work together where it makes sense while defending your views and your positions when there are differences.
YOUNG: Steven Pifer, director of the Arms Control Initiative at the Brookings Institution. Thank you.
PIFER: Thank you, Robin. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.