Cold Shoulder

Snowden Dispute Sparks Deeper Fallout in U.S.-Russia Relationship

Stung by the Snowden affair, Obama is pulling back on working with Putin on anything. By Josh Rogin.

Tanya Lokshina/Human Rights Watch, via AP

The Obama administration is pulling back from various aspects of U.S.-Russian cooperation as the dispute over the fate of National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden deepens, only the latest irritant in the ever-cooling bilateral relationship.

The Russian immigration ministry granted Snowden a document this week that would allow him to leave the transit area of the Moscow airport, where he has been confined for a month, and live in Russia for up to a year. In response, Secretary of State John Kerry phoned Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov Wednesday and informed him that a planned meeting of foreign and defense ministers set for August in Washington—known as a 2+2 meeting—was now in jeopardy of being canceled, officials told The Daily Beast.

“I’m not going to be scrambling jets to get a 29-year-old hacker,” President Barack Obama said last month as part of the administration’s public campaign to downplay the trouble Snowden has caused in U.S.-Russian relations.

But behind the scenes, the dispute is deeply affecting an already troubled relationship and the administration’s reaction is part of an overall frustration with various Russian government actions that date back well before Snowden ever landed in Moscow.

Obama is not expected to attend his scheduled meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow in September following the G-20 meeting in St. Petersburg, but that is only the most visible example of a new U.S. government approach to dealing with the Russian government.

Kerry’s threat to Lavrov is just the latest in a string of decisions to cancel or postpone various interactions between U.S. and Russian officials in several agencies, many of which have nothing to do with the Snowden affair, officials said.

At Wednesday’s press briefing, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said that Kerry pressed Lavrov on the Snowden case, but she did not reveal that Kerry had threatened to cancel the 2+2 meeting, which was meant to cover a range of bilateral diplomatic and security issues.

“[Kerry] reiterated our belief, the belief of the United States, that Mr. Snowden needs to be returned to the United States, where he will have a fair trial, that Russia still has the ability to do the right thing,” Psaki said.

Responding to The Daily Beast Thursday, deputy spokeswoman Marie Harf declined to say if the 2+2 meeting was on or off. “We have no announcements to make on schedules,” adding that “we’ve consistently made clear that we’d like to avoid harm to the bilateral relationship.”

The U.S. and Russia have canceled meetings and summits to signal displeasure before. In 2008, the U.S. scrapped nearly all instances of bilateral cooperation following the Russian invasion of Georgia, an attack that sparked a five-day war and resulted in an occupation of two Georgian territories that continues to this day.

And last year, Putin snubbed Obama by refusing to attend the G-8 meeting in Chicago, sending Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev in his place. By the time Obama and Putin met in Northern Ireland last month, the personal relationship had deteriorated to the point that the awkwardness was palpable and no progress was made.

Two weeks ago, Obama phoned Putin and asked him to send Snowden back to the U.S., but Putin refused, according to one official who was briefed on the call. Following that perceived rebuke, the Obama team doubled down on its new policy to show the Russian government the cold shoulder.

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“The Snowden affair is definitely affecting U.S.-Russia relations, no question. When you make it clear that something is very important to the U.S. and we are asking for cooperation and that request is rejected, that rejection is going to have an impact on the broader relationship,” said Samuel Charap, senior fellow for Russia and Eurasia at the International Institute for Strategic Studies. “There’s only so many times you can thumb your nose at a U.S. president and not expect consequences. When the president himself has gotten involved personally and been rebuffed, the rule book kind of goes out the window.”

Both the Obama-Putin summit and the Kerry-Lavrov meeting are problematic for the Obama administration because they could be overshadowed in the media by the Snowden affair, said Toby Gati, a former senior White House and State Department official dealing with Russia.

“Nothing very concrete can move forward while there’s such a big elephant in the room. Whatever is discussed would get drowned out by the desire of the Obama administration to convince the Russian government to remove this huge irritant in bilateral relations,” she said.

Moreover, in order to persuade the Russian government that the Snowden case is top priority, it can’t hold regularly scheduled meetings as if nothing is wrong in the relationship, Gati said.

“This would be seen as ‘business as usual’ by the Russians, and the administration’s message now is that real progress requires real consideration of our interests on an issue of great importance for the U.S.,” she said.

The U.S.-Russian relationship has faced a number of other challenges in recent months, including Russian prosecution of leading opposition figures, Russian government harassment of American NGOs, Russia’s expulsion of USAID, Russia’s unilateral withdrawal from a program to secure loose nuclear materials, and Russian insistence on arming the military of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad while thwarting U.N. Security Council action to punish his government for atrocities.

With all that going on, there’s not much positive that could come out of these meetings anyway, said Fiona Hill, a former national intelligence official on Russia, now at the Brookings Institution. For years, the Obama administration pursued a “reset” policy with Russia, with some results; now the relationship is reverting back to the more familiar pattern of mutual antagonism and suspicion from the Cold War.

Still, the Obama administration’s new get-tough strategy isn’t likely to change Putin’s calculation on whether or not to send Snowden back to the U.S. Putin doesn’t want to be seen as caving to American pressure and, although he likely doesn’t want the burden of hosting Snowden, he isn’t going to give him back to the U.S. without greater incentive.

“There’s no prospect that the Russians are going to send Snowden back. Snowden is in the land of spy swaps now. Putin is not going to give this guy up for nothing,” said Hill.

In the end, the Obama administration may see very little upside in continuing to press for engagement with a Russian government that doesn’t seem to be interested in working to pursue a positive and aggressive bilateral agenda, she said.

“These guys are basically giving us the finger, so we are saying ‘Why are we going out there and doing these things?’” she said. “You could say that by standing up to Russia, the U.S. is finally getting some balls.”