In a rare and unexpected diplomatic snub, President Obama has cancelled his meeting with Russian President Vladamir Putin. While the decision sends a clear sign that the U.S. is dissatisfied with Russia's treatment of the Edward Snowden NSA leak issue, the hard-ball approach may be a missed opportunity for the two world leaders to engage at time marked by political stalemate.
"We have reached the conclusion that there is not enough recent progress in our bilateral agenda with Russia," White House Press Secretary Jay Carney explained in a statement announcing the decision, sending a flurry of outcry from critics who saw the meeting as a rare opportunity to move stagnant relations between the nations forward. The scheduled meeting would have been the first encounter between the world leaders since Putin was reelected in March 2012 and Obama was reelected last November.
On Tuesday, the president discussed his disappointment with a range of Russian policies, hinting at potential increasing tensions as the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics approach. Jay Carney has underlined the fact that the U.S. disagrees with the Russian president's policies not only over the NSA issue, but on "a number of other issues, including Syria."
Senator Charles Schumer (D-NY) said that the president has "clearly made the right decision,” adding, “President Putin is acting like a school-yard bully and doesn’t deserve the respect a bilateral summit would have accorded him.” Echoing this sentiment, Obama told Late Night host Jay Leno, "There are times when they [Russia] slip back into Cold War thinking and Cold War mentality ... What I continually say to them and to President Putin, that's the past."
The most recent snub from Russia came over their support of Edward Snowden, the NSA leaker who initially fled to Hong Kong and was then held in the transit area of Moscow's airport before the country granted him asylum last week. Russia's Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov has called U.S. outcry over the Snowden issue "blown out of proportion," claiming they threaten to "undermine cooperation" between the two nations on a range of crucial issues affecting U.S.-Russian relations and broader world issues such as Iran's nuclear program.
Despite increasing tensions over the week over the Snowden decision, the sudden cancellation of the much-anticipated meeting between the two leaders still comes as a surprise. There was little indication earlier on in the week that the meeting would not go forward, and many foreign policy analysts were eagerly anticipating the meeting as a rare opportunity for the leaders to address the Snowden issue and move bilateral relations forward.
The fear remains that the cancelled meeting will only heighten tensions and gridlock between the nations. The difficulty with using diplomatic "carrots" as a strategy to ease tensions (rather utilizing more hard-power pressures like economic sanctions) is that it can be difficult to establish a consistent standard under which diplomatic punishments will be maintained, and it can be all the more difficult to ensure appropriate channels of communication exist to get things done. Critics have maintained, for example, that Washington's decision to cut off diplomatic ties with Iran since the 1990s over the nuclear issue has only made the issue worse.
President Obama will still attend the G20 international economic summit in St. Petersburg this week alongside the Russian government. Instead of the planned meeting between the leaders, the president is expected to add a visit to Sweden to his trip. The hope remains that the strategy will present enough of an impetus to encourage Putin suddenly to switch gears, rather than harbor further ill-will and stalemate between parties.