WASHINGTON (AFP) – Hints that President Barack Obama may skip a September bilateral summit in Moscow suggest that Washington is ready to accept a limited relationship with Russian leader Vladimir Putin, experts said.
Relations between the two countries have been strained by a number of issues in recent months, including the conflict in Syria, the fate of U.S. intelligence leaker Edward Snowden, and Washington’s criticism of the jailing in Russia of protest leader Alexei Navalny.
In mid-June, Russian and American authorities announced that the two leaders would hold a Moscow summit on September 3 and 4, before traveling to St. Petersburg for the two-day G-20 meeting.
It would be just the second time Obama visited Moscow since taking office in 2009, and his first visit since Russian leader Vladimir Putin regained power in May 2012.
The meeting however has been thrown into doubt as Washington and Moscow grapple over Snowden, who has been marooned at Moscow’s international airport since June 23 after revealing a massive U.S.-led global online surveillance program.
Snowden has applied for asylum in Russia — among dozens of other countries — but Washington wants him to be extradited to face espionage charges.
On Friday the White House had nothing to say regarding calls from two senators that the G-20 summit be moved from Russia over the Snowden controversy, and was equally non-committal regarding the Obama-Putin summit.
“Russia is the host of the G-20 this year in St. Petersburg. And it is our intention — the president’s intention to travel to Russia for that meeting,” White House spokesman Jay Carney said on Wednesday.
The Obama administration maintained that position even after The New York Times cited officials Thursday suggesting the Moscow meeting could be cancelled due to tension over Snowden.
Russia expert Andrew Kuchins at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington said casting doubt on the Moscow meeting sends a message: “If the Russians grant Snowden asylum, even temporary asylum, … that would be viewed simply as a bridge too far,” he opined.
But his colleague at the Brookings Institution, Steven Pifer, argued the Snowden affair is merely the latest of a number of issues that have poisoned the relationship between the two former Cold War rivals, and is not by itself a dealbreaker.
Relations had warmed somewhat under Putin’s predecessor Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev.
But meetings between Obama and Putin — whether at the 2012 G-20 summit in Mexico or the G-8 in northern Ireland in June — have been frosty and tense.
Putin even snubbed the G-8 meeting in Camp David in May 2012, sending Medvedev in his stead.
Obama “clearly would like to do something more on arms control, so one question is, are the Russians prepared to respond to the proposals that he made in Berlin in June for reducing the new START limits by a third?” Pifer asked.
The president would also “like to find a solution on missile defense issues — they want to expand the economic questions and boost commercial cooperation,” he said.
“My sense is that whether [continuing with the meeting in] Moscow makes sense turns on those questions, not so much on Snowden,” he said.
To a certain extent, Kuchins agrees.
The reports on cancelling the Moscow meeting are “also a message to Vladimir Putin, that I, President Obama, am not going to waste my precious time and my administration’s resources on a relationship that just doesn’t seem to bear any fruit,” he said.
Pifer, a former U.S. ambassador to the Ukraine, said that if the Moscow meeting is canceled there could still be a bilateral meeting on the sidelines of the G-20, which could help Russia save face.
He also noted that the Secretary of State John Kerry and his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, have maintained a “workable” relationship, guaranteeing that high-level dialogue between Moscow ant Washington won’t end completely.
If Obama decides not to go to Moscow, however, “this is something the Russians would not be happy about. One part of Putin’s self image of course is that he plays with the big boys. And if the American president decides that there’s not much value in spending a day and a half with you, there’s a message there, and it will not be a welcome message in Moscow,” Pifer explained.
“Whether that’s enough to motivate the Russians to do something that ensure the summit goes forward, that question remains to be seen,” he said.