LOS ANGELES — In a rare diplomatic rebuke, President Barack Obama called off an upcoming Moscow summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Wednesday, sending a stern message of disapproval over Russia’s harboring of National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden.
Although U.S. frustration with Moscow has been growing over other key issues such as missile defense and human rights, it was Russia’s decision to grant Snowden asylum in defiance of Obama’s repeated requests that dealt the latest blow to uneasy U.S. relations with a former Cold War foe.
Wednesday’s announcement is likely to further strain the relationship, even as the U.S. seeks Russia’s cooperation on Syria and other pressing issues. Canceling the meeting, scheduled for early September, denies Putin a prominent moment just as global attention will be turning to a major economic summit that Russia will be hosting.
Airing its own disappointment, Russia’s government said Obama’s decision showed the U.S. is unable to develop relations with Moscow on an “equal basis.” Putin’s foreign affairs adviser, Yuri Ushakov, played down the Kremlin’s role in the Snowden controversy, describing the American’s status as a situation that “hasn’t been created by us.”
“Russian representatives are ready to continue working together with American partners on all key issues,” Ushakov said, adding that the invitation to Obama to visit Moscow next month still stands.
Obama will still attend the Group of 20 economic summit in St. Petersburg, but a top White House official said the president has no plans to hold one-on-one talks with Putin while there. Instead of visiting Putin in Moscow, the president is adding a stop in Sweden to his early-September itinerary.
Obama, traveling in California, said Tuesday that Russia’s decision to grant Snowden asylum for one year reflected the “underlying challenges” the U.S. 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.”
White House deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes said it was the “unanimous view” of Obama and his national security team that a summit didn’t make sense in the current environment, which he described as a troubled relationship. He said the Snowden decision exacerbated those tensions and that the U.S. saw few signs that progress would be made during the Moscow summit on other agenda items.
“We’ll still work with Russia on issues where we can find common ground,” Rhodes said.
U.S. lawmakers from both parties who had expressed outrage at Russia and insisted Obama take a hard line in response voiced support for Obama’s move.
Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., said Putin has been “acting like a school-yard bully and doesn’t deserve the respect a bilateral summit would have accorded him.” And California Rep. Ed Royce, the Republican chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said the cancellation “should help make clear that the Russian government’s giving Edward Snowden `refugee’ status is unacceptable.”
The 30-year-old Snowden is accused of leaking highly secret details about NSA surveillance programs. He first fled from the U.S. to Hong Kong, then made his way to Russia. He was in the transit zone of a Moscow airport for more than a month before Russia granted him asylum last week — a decision that allowed Russia to represent itself as a defender of human rights amid criticism from the U.S. and other nations of its crackdown on dissent.
Obama and Putin have frequently found themselves at odds on pressing international issues, most recently in Syria, where the U.S. accuses Putin of helping President Bashar Assad fund a civil war against an opposition that the U.S. is supporting. The U.S. has also been a vocal critic of Russia’s crackdown on Kremlin critics and recently sanctioned 18 Russians for human rights violations.
For its part, Moscow has accused the U.S. 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 U.S. adoptions of Russian children, a move seen as retaliation for the U.S. measure that cleared the way for the human rights sanctions.
Obama and Putin last met in June on the sidelines of the Group of 8 meeting in Northern Ireland. While there, they announced plans to hold the additional talks in Moscow.
White House spokesman Jay Carney said the U.S. told the Russian government Wednesday morning that Obama believed “it would be more constructive to postpone the summit until we have more results from our shared agenda.”
Even as Obama scrapped plans to meet with Putin, Secretary of State John Kerry and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel were preparing for meetings in Washington on Friday with their Russian counterparts. Snowden’s status is expected to be a main topic.
The lower-level meetings with Russia underscore that the U.S. cannot completely sever ties with the Kremlin. Russian transit routes are critical to the U.S. as it removes troops and equipment from Afghanistan. And despite deep differences over Syria’s future, the White House knows it will almost certainly need some level of Russian cooperation in order to oust Assad.
Still, some U.S. lawmakers have called for Obama to not only scrub the Moscow summit but 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.
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 U.S. role in an increasingly interdependent global economy, Obama said it made sense to have high-level representation.
That meeting is to take place in St. Petersburg on Sept. 5-6. The White House said Obama would arrive in Stockholm, Sweden, on Sept. 4 for his first visit as president to the Northern European nation.
Rhodes said Sweden has been an important U.S. partner on clean energy issues and will be part of a U.S. trade agreement being negotiated with the European Union.