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White House Takes Stock of Russia Relationship After Snowden Asylum Dispute

August 7, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
President Barack Obama cancelled a September summit with Russia's President Vladimir Putin amid disappointment over Edward Snowden's asylum. Jeffrey Brown turns to Stephen Sestanovich of the Council on Foreign Relations and the Center for the National Interest's Dimitri Simes for more on the state of U.S.-Russian relations.

GWEN IFILL: President Obama has called off next month’s planned meeting with Russian President Putin. That announcement today underscored the damage done by the dispute over Edward Snowden.

For the record, the statement posted on the White House Web site said U.S. officials could not justify a meeting of the presidents.

State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki elaborated:

JEN PSAKI, State Department: Major issues were not teed up to make significant progress on the level of a president-to-president summit. And that wasn’t a constructive step to take at this point.

GWEN IFILL: But it was clear the Edward Snowden affair was the driving force behind the decision to cancel the summit.

Last week, the Kremlin granted asylum to the National Security Agency leaker, in spite of U.S. demands that he be handed over to face espionage charges.

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JAY LENO, The Tonight Show With Jay Leno: The 44th president of the United States, Barack Obama.


GWEN IFILL: Last night, in an appearance on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, President Obama said that was the wrong decision.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: I was disappointed.

JAY LENO: Mm-hmm.

BARACK OBAMA: Because, you know, even though we don’t have an extradition treaty with them, traditionally, we have tried to respect if there’s a lawbreaker or an alleged lawbreaker in their country. We evaluate it and we try to work with them.

GWEN IFILL: And today’s White House statement acknowledged the Snowden matter was indeed “also a factor that we considered in assessing the current state of our bilateral relationship.”

In the Leno interview, the president gave the Russians credit for cooperation in the Boston bombing investigation and other areas, but, he said:

BARACK OBAMA: There have been times where they slip back into Cold War thinking and a Cold War mentality. And what I consistently say to them and what I say to President Putin is, that’s the past. And, you know, we have got to think about the future. And there’s no reason why we shouldn’t be able to cooperate more effectively than we do.

GWEN IFILL: Tensions in the Obama-Putin relationship were clearly evident at the G8 summit in Ireland last June, after they clashed over Syria.

Today, Kremlin officials expressed their own disappointment at the U.S. decision to forego the summit. But they said President Putin’s invitation stands. Mr. Obama still plans to attend the G20 gathering in St. Petersburg next month, but has added a side visit to Sweden instead.

And Secretary of State John Kerry and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel will meet with their Russian counterparts in Washington on Friday.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, was the president right to cancel the meeting? And where does this leave U.S.-Russian relations?

Stephen Sestanovich teaches international diplomacy at Columbia University. He served in the State Department during the Reagan and Clinton administrations. Dimitri Simes is president of the Center for the National Interest. He just returned from a trip to Russia, where he met with senior Russian officials.

And welcome to both of you.

Stephen Sestanovich, was it the Snowden asylum in the end that led to this, and do you think it was the right move?

STEPHEN SESTANOVICH, Council on Foreign Relations: I think it was the key factor in the decision, but it wasn’t the most important issue.

What it did was force the administration to take careful stock of where the relationship stood. What’s going on, they had to ask, and is this meeting going to be a loser? I think they were right to conclude it was going to be a loser, that it was going to be a waste of time, at best, and a humiliation, at worst.

JEFFREY BROWN: Dimitri Simes, you told one of our producers earlier today you think President Obama mishandled the situation with Putin over Snowden. Explain what you mean by that. And is that how Russian officials that you have talked to felt?

DIMITRI SIMES, Center for the National Interest: Well, Snowden came to Russia not at invitation of the Russian government.

Actually, from what I was told — and it was confirmed to me by U.S. officials — that the U.S. government have informed the Russians about Snowden being on a plane from Hong Kong to Moscow only when the plane had already left Hong Kong. So, Snowden was traveling to Cuba. He was supposed to board a plane to Cuba, a Russian plane, next day.

Then the U.S. government goes to the Cubans, and despite a rather difficult U.S.-Cuban relationship, the Cubans decided to talk with the United States and not allow Snowden to go via Cuba. So here is Snowden at the Russian airport. He’s there for less than six hours, and the secretary of state already warns Putin about consequences.

And the State Department already expresses strong concern. And Senator Schumer warns Putin about terrible implications for the relationship and says that Putin put the knife in the American back.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, so to fast-forward to today’s action, is this seen in Russia as a clear diplomatic slight?

DIMITRI SIMES: I think that the way it is seen in Russia as a logical progression of this situation. They obviously are not happy that the summit was canceled.

At the same time, I think everybody recognizes that under the circumstances, as Steve said, that was the right decision, including from the Russian standpoint, because if President Obama came to Moscow under current circumstances, with all this media criticism, pressure from the Hill, he would have to conduct himself in a way that serious negotiation would be impossible.

JEFFREY BROWN: We hear the president on Jay Leno last night, and he’s referring — he’s almost chiding, it sounds like, Russians for a Cold War mentality. What do you make of that? What does that tell you about the state of things?

STEPHEN SESTANOVICH: Well, I think Putin radiates a Cold War mentality, so a lot of other people have come to that conclusion.

I’m not sure it’s the best move to throw that in his face. There are many other factors producing this. But I think it’s clearly the way the president reads the relationship right now and reads Putin’s view of the relationship. He sees Putin and administration officials across the board see this as blocking any kind of real progress on a whole host of issues.

JEFFREY BROWN: What kind of — what are the other issues that are most important in this relationship?

STEPHEN SESTANOVICH: Well, there are two sets, in addition to Snowden. There are the bilateral geopolitical issues, Syria, Iran, missile defense, nuclear arms reductions.

There are, in addition to that, the internal developments in Russia that make it embarrassing for an American president to be shoulder-to-shoulder with Putin without, as Dimitri says, having to duke it out with him about what has been going on.

JEFFREY BROWN: From the Russian side or the Russian view, is something like this seen as a blow to Putin, in the sense that it denies him this big moment?


JEFFREY BROWN: Or does it in fact boost him because it looks like he stuck to his guns?

DIMITRI SIMES: Well, a lot depends on what is going to happen in Saint Petersburg at G20.

Assuming Obama goes — and the White House said that he would go — there will be an opportunity to have a meeting at the sidelines of the summit. The White House said that such a meeting wasn’t planned. Well, of course it is not planned at this point.

JEFFREY BROWN: But it’s possible, you think?

DIMITRI SIMES: I think that if discussions on Friday between U.S. and Russian senior officials are productive, I think it would be very difficult to avoid a discussion between Putin and Obama in Saint Petersburg. It’s not a big deal.

Let me add one thing to what Steve said. I agree with every specific point he made about problems in the U.S.-Russian relationship. But there’s a more fundamental problem. And this is a problem that appears in foreign policy only with Russian, but in general.

I think, after the end of the Cold War, we often developed a mind-set that we’re not just the only superpower, but that we’re master of the universe, and the other nations, including the other great powers, are expected to accommodate us. And once they don’t do it, as in the case of the Snowden affair, we take it very, very personally. That is not helpful to our foreign policy effectiveness.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, the puts it in a much grander scale, doesn’t it?

But what’s your reaction to a statement like that?

STEPHEN SESTANOVICH: I don’t think President Obama’s foreign policy is a master of the universe foreign policy.

And I don’t think he has treated the Russian account that way. He’s actually approached it in a pretty transactional way, trying to make progress on specific issues. And although it’s clear there’s no particular love lost between him and Putin, I think the view that the administration had when Putin came back was, well, let’s see what we can do with this guy.

And they built toward this meeting with the idea that, if you can make progress on serious issues, it will be worth having a meeting. But they have been stuffed — stiffed, essentially, for the whole of this year.

JEFFREY BROWN: So how would you characterize today the U.S.-Russia relationship?




The — it has got a core of substance that could be there that is now missing, and very negative atmospherics relating to internal developments in Russia, and bad personal vibes. What more do you want?


JEFFREY BROWN: How would you characterize it?

DIMITRI SIMES: Empty, going down, at the expense of very important national security interests of the United States, with a potential threat to American life, as we have seen in the case of Boston Marathon, when an absence of adequate security dialogue with Russia led to a terrorist act which clearly was avoidable.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, very serious consequences, you think.

DIMITRI SIMES: Serious consequences. And we should do better. But, under the circumstances, I’m glad that the summit was canceled.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Dimitri Simes, Stephen Sestanovich, thank you both very much.