US President Barack Obama on Wednesday scrapped a Moscow summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin, with the White House citing inadequate progress in relations and disappointment over whistleblower Edward Snowden.
The rare decision to cancel the talks set for next month on the sidelines of a G20 summit in St Petersburg came after Obama accused the Russians of slipping back “into a Cold War mentality,” in an interview aired late on Tuesday.
However, Washington did not slam the door on cooperation with Russia, saying that a meeting of foreign and defense ministers scheduled for later this week would go ahead as planned in the US capital.
In Moscow, the Kremlin said it was “disappointed” with the decision, saying Washington was not ready to build ties with Russia on an “equal basis” and insisted the invitation to Obama still stands.
White House spokesman Jay Carney said the US valued what had been accomplished with Russia in Obama’s first term, especially on Afghanistan and North Korea, but that the talks would not proceed.
“Given our lack of progress on issues such as missile defense and arms control, trade and commercial relations, global security issues, and human rights and civil society in the last 12 months, we have informed the Russian government that we believe it would be more constructive to postpone the summit until we have more results from our shared agenda,” Carney said.
“Russia’s disappointing decision to grant Edward Snowden temporary asylum was also a factor that we considered in assessing the current state of our bilateral relationship,” he said.
In later comments, Carney said cooperation with Russia was continuing on some important fronts, such as in Afghanistan, but there was “no question that we’ve encountered some challenges in our relationship” more recently.
The White House had for weeks hinted that the talks were in doubt, as ties with Russia deteriorated.
Moscow last week granted a year’s temporary asylum to Snowden, a former US intelligence contractor who revealed the existence of US electronic surveillance programs that capture telephone and Internet data on a global scale.
Snowden — who is facing espionage charges in the US and whose passport has been revoked — was last week allowed to relocate to a secret safe house after being marooned in Moscow’s airport for five weeks.
“There’s no question that the Russians clearly understood our perspective” on Snowden, Carney said.
Other troublesome issues in the US-Russia relationship include a split over how to deal with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Russia’s ban on adoptions by US parents and a new Russian law criminalizing the dissemination of information about homosexuality to minors.
“I have no patience for countries that try to treat gays or lesbians or transgender persons in ways that intimidate them or are harmful to them,” Obama said.
The White House said Obama still planned to attend the G20 summit on Sept. 5 and Sept. 6, and announced he would visit Stockholm before heading to Russia.
US Secretary of State John Kerry and US Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel will still meet with their Russian counterparts in Washington today.
US Department of State spokeswoman Jen Psaki said Afghanistan, Syria, Iran, North Korea, missile defense and human rights would all be on the agenda.
In an interview on Tuesday with late-night talk show host Jay Leno, Obama spoke of “underlying challenges” in the relationship with Russia.
“There have been times where they slip back into Cold War thinking and a Cold War mentality,” Obama said. “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.”
Carney told reporters that Obama had not heard back from Moscow on the canceled visit, but added the president and Putin had recently spoken about a variety of topics, including Snowden.
In the Russian capital, Putin’s top foreign policy aide Yury Ushakov told reporters it was clear that the Snowden asylum decision had tipped the scales.
“This problem emphasizes that the United States, as before, is not ready to build relations on an equal basis,” Ushakov said, accusing Washington of thwarting the signing of a bilateral extradition agreement.
Steven Pifer, a Russia specialist at the Brookings Institution in Washington, said the cancelation of the summit, while rare, was hardly surprising.
The US “just didn’t see the value of a summit meeting in terms of moving the ball forward on big issues,” Pifer told reporters, although he held out hope for improvements in relations in the long term. “It’s a serious bump on the road, but the fact that the administration is saying ‘let’s go ahead and have the ministers meet’ — my impression is that they’re ready to cooperate where cooperation is possible.”
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