LOS ANGELES — President Barack Obama is canceling plans to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow next month — a rare diplomatic snub.
The move is retribution for Russia’s decision to grant temporary asylum to National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden. It also reflects growing U.S. frustration with Russia on several other issues, including missile defense and human rights.
A top White House official says Obama still attends to plan the Group of 20 economic summit in St. Petersburg, Russia, but has no plans to meet with Putin there one-on-one. Instead of visiting Putin in Moscow, the president will add a stop in Sweden to his early September travel itinerary.
The U.S. was expected to alert the Russians on Wednesday morning about Obama’s decision, though the two presidents were not expected to speak directly. Obama and Putin last met in June on the sidelines of the Group of 8 summit in Northern Ireland.
White House deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes said Russia’s decision last week to defy the U.S. and grant Snowden temporary asylum only worsened an already troubled relationship. And with few signs that progress would be made during the Moscow summit on other agenda items, Rhodes said the president decided to cancel the talks.
“We’ll still work with Russia on issues where we can find common ground, but it was the unanimous view of the president and his national security team that a summit did not make sense in the current environment,” Rhodes said.
Obama’s decision is likely to deepen the chill in the already frosty relationship between the two leaders. They have frequently found themselves at odds on pressing international issues, most recently in Syria, where the U.S. accuses Putin of helping President Bashar Assad fund a civil war. The U.S. has also been a vocal critic of Russia’s crackdown on Kremlin critics and recently sanctioned 18 Russians for human rights violations.
Moscow has accused the U.S. of installing a missile shield in Eastern Europe as a deterrent against Russia, despite American assurances that the shield is not aimed at its former Cold War foe. Putin also signed a law last year banning U.S. adoptions of Russian children, a move that was seen as retaliation for the U.S. measure that cleared the way for the human rights sanctions.
Obama, who is traveling in California, said in an interview Tuesday that he was “disappointed” by Russia’s move to grant Snowden asylum for one year. But he said the move also reflected the “underlying challenges” the U.S. faces in dealing with Moscow.
“There have been times where they slip back into Cold War thinking and a Cold War mentality,” Obama said in an interview on NBC’s “The Tonight Show.” Snowden is accused of leaking highly secretive details about NSA surveillance programs. He first fled from the U.S. to Hong Kong, then made his way to Russia. He was stuck in the transit zone of a Moscow airport for more than a month before Russia granted him asylum.
Secretary of State John Kerry and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel are still preparing for meetings in Washington on Friday with their Russian counterparts. Snowden’s status is expected to be a main topic of conversation.
Russian transit routes are critical to the U.S. as it removes troops and equipment from Afghanistan. And despite deep differences over Syria’s future, the White House knows it will almost certainly need some level of Russian cooperation in order to oust Assad.
Some congressional lawmakers have called for Obama to also demand that Russia forfeit its right to host the G-20 summit. Others have spoken of boycotting next year’s Winter Olympics in the Russian city of Sochi.
In his interview Tuesday, Obama defended his decision to attend the G-20 summit, an annual gathering of the world’s largest economies. Given the U.S. role in an increasingly interdependent global economy, Obama said it made sense to have high-level representation.
The G-20 summit is scheduled to take place in St. Petersburg on Sept. 5-6. Obama will make his first visit to Sweden ahead of the summit, though his itinerary is unclear. Rhodes said Sweden has been an important U.S. partner on clean energy issues and will be part of a U.S. trade agreement being negotiated with the European Union.