The New York Times

August 7, 2013

Ties Fraying, Obama Drops Putin Meeting

By and

President Obama on Wednesday canceled next month’s Moscow summit meeting, ending for now his signature effort to transform Russian-American relations and potentially dooming his aspirations for further nuclear arms cuts before leaving office.

Four years after declaring a new era between the two former cold war adversaries and after some early successes in forging fresh cooperation, Mr. Obama concluded that the two sides had grown so far apart again that there was no longer any point in sitting down with President Vladimir V. Putin. It was the first time an American leader had called off such a trip in decades.

The immediate cause was Russia’s decision to grant temporary asylum to Edward J. Snowden, the former National Security Agency contractor who disclosed secret American surveillance programs. But like many broken marriages, the divorce was a long time coming. The two sides have been at loggerheads over arms control, missile defense, Syria, trade and human rights, and Obama aides said Moscow was no longer even responding to their proposals. And the president has privately expressed exasperation at the way Mr. Putin has dealt with him.

The cancellation of the Moscow meeting was not a complete break in relations. Mr. Obama will still attend the annual conference of the Group of 20 nations in St. Petersburg on Sept. 5 and 6, and his secretaries of state and defense will still meet with their Russian counterparts in Washington on Friday. But Mr. Obama will not even meet with Mr. Putin on the sidelines of the G-20 gathering, as is customary.

“We weren’t going to have a summit for the sake of appearances, and there wasn’t an agenda that was ripe,” said Benjamin J. Rhodes, the president’s deputy national security adviser.

“We’re not in any way signaling that we want to cut off this relationship,” he added, but meetings from now on will be held at lower levels. “We’ll continue to calibrate whether or not the relationship improves to the point where we can reopen the prospect of a presidential initiative.”

Russian officials blamed Mr. Obama for the deadlock and suggested he was motivated by domestic politics. Yuri V. Ushakov, an adviser to Mr. Putin, faulted the United States, saying it did not want to build stronger ties between the two countries.

“This very problem underlines the fact that the United States is still not ready to build relations on an equal basis,” he told reporters after Ambassador Michael McFaul delivered news of Mr. Obama’s decision in Moscow.

Aleksei K. Pushkov, chairman of the Russian Parliament’s foreign affairs committee, said the move heralded the end of the Obama administration’s “reset” policy. “The bilateral relationship has come to an impasse,” he said in a telephone interview. “It makes it all the more necessary for the two presidents to meet and to try to work out a new agenda for the relations.”

The White House had already planned to review the relationship after the September meeting to decide whether it was still worth as much of Mr. Obama’s limited time and political resources. The cancellation made clear that the White House decided it was not, a calculation crystallized when American officials learned of Russia’s asylum decision in Mr. Snowden’s case at the same time the news media did.

“Snowden was obviously a factor, but this decision was rooted in a much broader assessment and deeper disappointment,” said an administration official who was not authorized to be identified. “We just didn’t get traction with the Russians. They were not prepared to engage seriously or immediately on what we thought was the very important agenda before us.”

Andrew C. Kuchins, director of Russia studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said the administration would leave the ball in Mr. Putin’s court. “At some point you’ve just got to make the judgment that it’s not working, it’s not going anywhere,” he said. “Why don’t we let him hang in the breeze for a while?”

Mr. Obama came to office in 2009 vowing to rebuild ties after years of tension. Working with Mr. Putin’s successor, Dmitri A. Medvedev, Mr. Obama signed the New Start treaty slashing nuclear arsenals, established a critical supply corridor for troops in Afghanistan, helped Russia finally join the World Trade Organization and agreed on sanctions on Iran.

But Mr. Putin’s return to power last year signaled a return of hostility. The Kremlin threw out American aid and democracy organizations, cracked down on internal opposition and backed President Bashar al-Assad in Syria’s civil war. Mr. Putin skipped a Group of 8 summit meeting hosted by Mr. Obama at Camp David last year.

For his part, Mr. Obama did not attend an Asia-Pacific meeting hosted by Mr. Putin last fall, although it was during his re-election campaign and he had never planned to go. Congress passed the Magnitsky Act imposing sanctions against Russian human rights violations and Moscow retaliated by cutting off American adoptions of Russian children.

Mr. Obama reached out recently to no avail. He sent his national security adviser to Moscow in April with a plan to share missile defense data and made a speech in Berlin in June proposing further nuclear arms reductions. But officials said Russia had offered no substantive response. The Kremlin’s handling of Mr. Snowden, one official said, was “the most provocative cold war manner of the choices that they had available to them.”

Andrei A. Piontovsky, a political analyst, said the cancellation underscored a visceral personal enmity between the two leaders. “Putin openly despises your president, forgive my bluntness,” he said.

He added that Russia sensed weakness in Mr. Obama that could lead to more dangerous confrontations.

“The fact is the relations were completely broken for a very long time,” he said. “The main raison d’être of Putin’s policy now is to make an enemy of the United States.”

The lack of prospect for agreement in Moscow in September was reinforced Monday when Rose Gottemoeller, the under secretary of state for arms control, met with Sergei Ryabkov, the Russian deputy foreign minister, in Brussels. Aides said Mr. Obama decided that same day to cancel the summit meeting. By Tuesday night, he was venting his irritation with Mr. Putin on “The Tonight Show.”

“There have been times where they slip back into cold war thinking and a cold war mentality,” Mr. Obama said. “And what I consistently say to them, what I say to President Putin, is that’s the past and we’ve got to think about the future, and there’s no reason why we shouldn’t be able to cooperate more effectively than we do.”

The cancellation was accompanied by a decision by Mr. Obama to visit Sweden instead, and the president has also invited leaders of Russia’s Baltic neighbors to visit the White House, both moves that the Kremlin may see as jabs.

But Secretary of State John Kerry and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel will go ahead with a planned meeting on Friday with Russia’s foreign minister, Sergey V. Lavrov, and Defense Minister Sergei K. Shoigu. Officials said the meeting would test whether relations could move forward now that they had been downgraded.

Arms control advocates urged the two sides to pursue further nuclear cuts anyway.

“We cannot afford to be spending money on maintaining an arsenal of cold war dimensions,” said Daryl G. Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association. “Neither can Russia. Both countries have an interest in reducing these stockpiles.”

But Mr. Obama’s decision received support among both Republicans and Democrats. Strobe Talbott, deputy secretary of state under Bill Clinton and now president of the Brookings Institution, said a Moscow meeting “would have been more happy talk than was merited.”

David J. Kramer, a former Bush administration official and now president of Freedom House, said Mr. Obama’s reset policy made important accomplishments.

“But it’s exhausted itself,” he said. “It sort of reached a point where the administration lived up to Einstein’s theory of insanity — they kept repeating the same thing over and over expecting different results.”

Peter Baker reported from Nantucket, Mass., and Steven Lee Myers from Moscow. Michael D. Shear contributed reporting from Washington, and Elisabeth Bumiller from Aspen, Colo.