A pause in ties

Print edition : September 06, 2013

President Barack Obama with Russian President Vladimir Putin during the G8 summit at the Lough Erne resort near Enniskillen in Northern Ireland on June 17. Photo: JEWEL SAMAD/AFP

Edward Snowden, third right, as he leaves Sheremetyevo airport outside Moscow with his Russian lawyer Anatoly Kucherena, second right, on August 1. Photo: AP

U.S.-Russia relations are put in “cold storage” after Barack Obama cancels his summit with Vladimir Putin over the granting of asylum to whistle-blower Edward Snowden.

AMERICAN WHISTLE-BLOWER EDWARD J. SNOWDEN, who has been granted asylum by the Kremlin, has provoked a fresh crisis in Russia-United States relations. U.S. President Barack Obama cancelled a planned bilateral meeting with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin, which was to have taken place in Moscow ahead of the G20 summit in St. Petersburg on September 4-5.

It is for the first time in over 50 years that a scheduled summit between the U.S. and Russian leaders has been called off. The last time it happened was at the height of the Cold War in 1960 when Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev cancelled a planned summit with President Dwight Eisenhower in Moscow after an American U-2 spy plane was shot down over the Ural region of Russia.

Obama’s talks with Putin in Moscow were to become their first stand-alone meeting after his re-election and Putin’s return to the Kremlin after a four-year stint as Russia’s Prime Minister. Obama will, however, attend the G20 meeting, but the White House declared that no one-on-one interaction with Putin was on the agenda. According to a Kremlin official, Obama’s refusal to hold a summit with Putin will put bilateral ties “in cold storage”.

Storm in U.S. Congress

Russia’s decision to give Snowden refuge has provoked a storm of fury in the U.S. Congress among both Republican and Democratic Senators. The former Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) analyst has been charged in the U.S. with espionage for disclosing the top-secret global surveillance programme. Senator John McCain, the former presidential candidate, described Moscow’s decision not to turn Snowden over to Washington as “a slap in the face of all Americans”, while Democratic Senator Charles Schumer said Russia had “stabbed us in the back”.

Angry leaders have gone to the extent of suggesting that the While House roll back its relations with Russia; punish Putin by boycotting the 2014 Winter Olympics scheduled to be held in Sochi; give Georgia, which has broken off diplomatic relations with Russia, its long-sought membership to the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO); and revive plans to deploy in Poland advanced missile interceptors that could threaten Russia’s nuclear arsenal.

In Russia, even experts loyal to the Kremlin have questioned the wisdom of granting Snowden asylum. “There was no need [for Russia] to assume responsibility for Snowden. The Chinese quickly got rid of him but we could not and would not do the same,” said Sergei Rogov, head of the Institute of U.S.A. and Canada Studies, Russia’s prestigious think tank, which advises the Kremlin. “Today Snowden is our headache and a trigger for crisis in Russian-American relations.”

The White House claimed Russia had a “clear legal basis” to extradite Snowden after the U.S. revoked his passport and brought espionage charges against him. It urged Russia to “build upon the strong law enforcement cooperation we have had” and expel Snowden.

However, Moscow pointed out that there was no extradition treaty between Russia and the U.S. because Washington had refused to sign one. The Prosecutor General’s office of the Russian Federation said that in the past 10 years or so the U.S. had turned down about 20 requests from Russia to extradite “killers, outlaws and people implicated in corruption”.

Legal grounds

Legal experts pointed out that even if an extradition treaty had existed between the two countries it would hardly apply in the case of Snowden. “Espionage, which is the main accusation against Snowden, is the quintessential ‘political offence’ in international law, and as such is routinely excluded from any list of extraditable offences,” said Richard Falk, Professor Emeritus of International Law at Princeton University and United Nations Special Rapporteur on Palestinian human rights.

“Russia’s grant of temporary refugee status to Snowden for one year was in full accord with the normal level of protection to be given to anyone accused of non-violent political crimes in a foreign country,” he said in his article “Russia, Snowden and international law” in MWC News ( “In effect, for Russia to have turned Snowden over to the United States under these conditions would have been morally and politically scandalous considering the nature of his alleged crimes.”

Notwithstanding the strong legal grounds to give Snowden asylum, he has become a hot potato for Russia. Putin described Snowden as an unwelcome “Christmas gift” from the U.S., who was “trapped” in Russia when the U.S. invalidated his passport. Putin could have well passed over this “gift” to somebody else. Venezuela, Bolivia and Nicaragua had all offered to give Snowden asylum, but the Russian leader decided the gains of sheltering Snowden outweighed the losses.

Putin's defiance

By offering protection to the world’s most wanted man, Putin reaffirmed his stature as a leader capable of standing up to the global superpower. Putin’s defiant stance contrasted with what The Guardian called the “cowardice and hypocrisy” of European leaders cowed down by the “gangsterism” of the American “godfather” when the aircraft of Bolivian President Evo Morales, returning from a summit in Moscow, was forced to land in Austria and searched on suspicion that Snowden could be on board.

While Putin’s defiance earned him applause outside Russia, his main target probably was domestic constituencies. His decision to reclaim the presidency last year proved highly unpopular with the urban middle classes and fuelled protest rallies and marches in Moscow. Independent pollsters say Putin is facing a crisis of legitimacy.

The latest opinion poll, conducted by the Levada-Centre in early August, showed that an impressive 47 per cent of Russians had a negative view of Putin or had become disappointed with his leadership, compared with just 36 per cent of those who continued to back him and shared his views. This marked a dramatic reversal of the overwhelming support Putin had enjoyed in previous years. Staring down the U.S. on the Snowden issue gave Putin a chance to shore up his wavering popularity at home.

The high-profile spat over Snowden, however, was neither the only nor the main reason for a new downturn in Russia-U.S. ties.

The “reset” policy launched when Obama entered the White House in 2009 has long run aground as the two countries failed to bridge the gaps in their positions on Syria and issues such as missile defence and human rights.

“Our decision not to participate in the [Moscow] summit was not simply around Mr Snowden; it had to do with the fact that, frankly, on a whole range of issues where we think we can make some progress, Russia has not moved,” Obama acknowledged at his first press conference after he cancelled his visit to Moscow. He said it would be “appropriate to take a pause” and reassess the ties with Moscow. This is bound to be seen in the Kremlin as further proof that Obama has a weak hand when it comes to foreign policy.

Washington blames Moscow for showing intransigence on such issues as Syria and missile defence, whereas the Kremlin feels the root problem is in the U.S.’ refusal to deal with Russia on a give-and-take basis as equal partners.

“This situation shows that the U.S. is still not ready to build relations with Russia on equal footing,” Putin’s foreign policy adviser Yuri Ushakov said.

Analysts say the cancellation of Obama’s visit to Moscow reflected a serious mismatch between the U.S. perception of Russia as a pale shadow of the Soviet Union and Russia’s view of itself as a world power. American leaders had no problem doing business with the Communist Soviet Union and have a far less stormy relationship today with China, which has replaced the Soviet Union as their main rival, but see no reason why they should give the same treatment to Russia after it lost the Cold War.

“For Washington, partnership with Moscow means Russia helping the United States on the U.S. agenda; for Moscow, it means splitting the difference,” Dmitry Trenin, wrote in the Carnegie Moscow Centre’s Eurasia Outlook on August 2 ( 52572). He is concerned that the reset may now be followed by a counter-reset.

“The atmosphere will grow thicker, and cooperation even harder to obtain,” he wrote. Writing in U.S.-Russia.Org, Trenin said, “The Edward J. Snowden case is not the reason the summit was called off. At most, it is a pretext….. With Obama finding it increasingly difficult to promote his domestic agenda with the health care reform as its centrepiece, he does not want to make more enemies [on Capitol Hill]. Apparently, cancelling the summit… looked to be the lesser evil in the eyes of the U.S. President and his advisers.”

At the same time, neither Moscow nor Washington wishes to let the Snowden affair provoke a complete breakdown in their relations.

The U.S. needs Russia’s cooperation in ensuring a peaceful transition in Afghanistan, preventing Syria from becoming a haven for jehadis, and resolving the stand-off over Iran’s nuclear programme.

Despite the scrapping of the Moscow summit, the U.S. and Russia went ahead with a two-plus-two meeting of their foreign and defence chiefs in Washington on August 9. It was the first such meeting in six years, and the two sides have decided to hold annual meetings.

Overall, however, a downgrading of Russia-U.S. ties appears inevitable.

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