President Obama is facing a no-win decision on Edward Snowden.
The White House on Thursday said it was “extremely disappointed” with Russia for granting the intelligence leaker temporary asylum, and officials said they were considering whether to cancel a planned bilateral summit ahead of the G-20 meeting in St. Petersburg next month.
But the president himself has yet to speak publicly on the matter, and it’s his response that will have the biggest impact on Russia’s relations with the United States.
That puts the president in a difficult spot. Retaliating against the Kremlin could jeopardize U.S. supply lines in Afghanistan, Moscow’s help with Iran’s nuclear ambitions and Obama's efforts to jointly reduce the countries’ nuclear weapons.
Following through with the planned bilateral summit, however, is likely to spark criticism at home from lawmakers who saw the asylum move as a “slap in the face” by Russian President Vladimir Putin.
“He can’t win,” said Lawrence Korb, a defense analyst at the liberal-leaning Center for American Progress.
“Because if he doesn’t go to the G-20 or talk to Putin, U.S. national security interests are going to be harmed,” Korb said. “If he does go, politically they’ll say to him: ‘You’re showing you’re not tough enough. No wonder people are running all over you here.’ ”
The Snowden saga, which saw the former NSA contractor hole up in a Moscow airport for more than a month before winning asylum for one year, is the latest chapter in a period of rocky U.S.-Russia relations.
The two nations are mired in a long-running dispute over Syria, where Moscow has backed Syrian President Bashar Assad and rebuffed action by the United Nations Security Council to stem the country’s civil war. The U.S. and Russia have also run into differences over missile defense in Europe and on nuclear arms issues.
White House press secretary Jay Carney said Thursday that no decision had been made about the bilateral summit, though the administration was “evaluating the utility” of attending. Carney did not indicate that Obama was considering skipping the G-20 meeting.
“Obviously this is not a positive development,” Carney said.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Secretary of State John Kerry were slated to hold meetings next week with their Russian counterparts that are also in doubt, Reuters reported.
Some meetings were underway on Friday. U.S. Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul sat down with Putin aide Yuri Ushakov, the embassy tweeted Friday.
Steven Pifer, director of the Brookings Institution's Arms Control Initiative and a former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, said the Obama administration should not skip the Kerry and Hagel meetings, and instead use them to assess what they can gain from the bilateral summit.
If Obama can win positive developments on nuclear arms cuts or differences on missile defense, for instance, then the summit is worth keeping, he said.
“From the White House point of view, it does raise the cost of the president going ahead with the planned summit,” Pifer said. “If Putin is not going to engage seriously on the questions we care about, what’s the value of going and incurring the political pain at home?”
Lawmakers slammed Putin for allowing Snowden to freely leave the Moscow airport, and are demanding that Obama take a stand.
“Russia has stabbed us in the back, and each day that Mr. Snowden is allowed to roam free is another twist of the knife,” said Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), the No. 3 Democrat in the Senate. “Given Russia’s decision today, the president should recommend moving the G-20 summit.”
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said Putin’s decision was a “deliberate effort to embarrass the United States” and called for retaliation.
“We need to deal with the Russia that is, not the Russia we might wish for,” McCain said. “We cannot allow today’s action by Putin to stand without serious repercussions.”
Republicans have pointed to the Snowden case as the latest sign that Obama’s attempted “reset” of US-Russian relations has failed.
“There will be a lot of people criticizing him if he goes ahead of the meeting because of Snowden,” Pifer said.
But Pifer added that the U.S. and Russia have long been able to wall off disputes over swapping spies, and he suspected this time would be no different.
“I think part of what you’re seeing is the White House’s understanding this is how the game is played, and no matter how much we beat on our chests, we’re not going to get Snowden back,” he said.