The President’s decision to cancel his meeting with Putin over the Edward Snowden flap is understandable on one level and questionable on another. Specifically, if there is any possibility to gain constructive engagement from the Russians on the two especially explosive Middle East issues of concern to the U.S.—Syria and Iran—cancelling the meeting is not exactly the way to garner Putin’s favor. Similarly, U.S.-Russian tensions over human rights issues, arms control, and commercial arrangements were to be discussed as well. These matters as well again will take a step back. While the lower level preparatory meetings are taking place this week in Washington as scheduled, they are expected to be form without substance given the fact that the major meeting in St. Petersburg has been cancelled.
Clearly there have been lengthy White House discussions over this decision. It seems that domestic political considerations and the absence of any positive movement on Snowden from Moscow drove the bus on this decision. The curious question which now looms, is to what extent are U.S.-Russian bi-lateral political relations different than they were during the communist era? We are not the type of enemies we once were during the height of the Cold War, but Russia clearly has not found itself able to ingratiate itself into the Western orbit.
Surely, the U.S. was embarrassed that the Russians granted Snowden asylum. Had Snowden succeeded in fleeing to Venezuela or Iceland or somewhere else, Obama and Putin undoubtedly still would be meeting before G-20 meeting on September 5. On the other hand, Russia knows that it is most unlikely that the U.S. would have considered repatriating a Russian citizen to the Russian authorities who had sought asylum in the U.S., given American assessment of the Russian Judiciary system.
As the meeting had little potential upside and given the storm of domestic protest that was already developing in certain Congressional circles, Obama opted for a safe decision. The problem with that move is that while little probably would have come from a September session, Obama and Putin will both now step back and start over again to develop a working relationship for the significant issues which they ought to be addressing. From the perspective of the Obama Administration, it might have been advisable to eat a bit of crow if there was any possibility that jointly addressing the Syrian civil war and the Iranian nuclear program could have been achieved. This strategy will not move the Russians to turn over Edward Snowden to U.S. justice.