By Julian Pecquet and Jeremy Herb - 06/25/13 11:44 PM EDT
Republicans criticized President Obama’s “weak” foreign policy on Tuesday after Russian President Vladimir Putin said his nation would not comply with Washington’s request to turn over National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden.
“I have to say that they know our president is weak,” said Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah). “They’re playing on it, and they’re enjoying it very, very much — Putin in particular — and it irritates the heck out of me.”
“It’s up to the administration to send a very strong signal,” said Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), a member of the Senate Intelligence panel. “I think it’s telling that the Russians feel they can ignore an extradition request from this administration. That’s certainly not a good sign, nor a sign of respect.”
Speaking to reporters in Finland on Tuesday, Putin said Snowden remained in the transit area of the Moscow airport and was a “free person” who hasn’t been charged with any crimes in Russia.
“The sooner he chooses his final destination, the better it is for him and Russia,” Putin said. “In any case, I would like not to deal with such issues because it is like shearing a pig: there’s lots of squealing and little fleece.”
Putin’s comments came the day after the White House threatened consequences against China for allowing Snowden to board a flight from Hong Kong to Moscow.
The administration toned down its rhetoric in the face of Russian obstruction, however, with Secretary of State John Kerry saying the administration wants to avoid a “confrontation” with Russia.
Even as it called on Russia to turn over Snowden “without delay,” the White House also made it clear Tuesday that the issue should not be allowed to poison the well.
“We agree with President Putin that we do not want this issue to negatively impact our bilateral relations,” said Caitlin Hayden, a spokeswoman for the National Security Council.
Hayden said that while the two countries do not have a bilateral extradition treaty, there is a “clear legal basis” for returning Snowden to the United States. Snowden fled Hong Kong over the weekend after the U.S. charged him with espionage. Many observers speculate that he could be sharing classified files with officials in Beijing and Moscow.
Russia’s foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, called U.S. suggestions of Russian involvement in Snowden’s flight plans “absolutely groundless and unacceptable.”
Kerry was particularly conciliatory when asked about Lavrov’s comments.
“I would simply appeal for calm and reasonableness in a moment where we don’t need to raise the level of confrontation over something as, frankly, basic and normal as this,” Kerry told reporters during a stop in Saudi Arabia. “We’re not looking for a confrontation. We’re not ordering anybody.”
Kerry is expected to meet with Lavrov next week to discuss plans for a last-ditch attempt at a political settlement in Syria. The U.S.-Russian sponsored peace talks risk unraveling before they even get started, with U.S. and Russian negotiators failing after five hours of discussions on Tuesday to agree on a date or a list of participants.
Hawkish Republicans argue the administration is being played. They say Obama’s promise during his visit to Germany last week to reduce the U.S. nuclear arsenal by as much as one-third should be a non-starter given recent developments.
“I don’t know why we think we could trust any negotiations with Russia on anything as important as our nuclear deterrent at this point,” said Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.), a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee. “And also we should be looking at if there are any other actions we can take.”
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said the White House should retaliate by moving forward on plans to build a missile defense shield in Europe and tightening sanctions on Russian human-rights violators as part of the Magnitsky Act passed by Congress last year.
He said Obama should also rethink plans to attend a bilateral meeting with Putin in Russia in September ahead of the Group of 20 summit in Saint Petersburg.
“It depends on the sequence of events [in the next few weeks]. But I don’t know what good that it does,” McCain said, referring to the one-on-one meeting. “Clearly they’re trying to flaunt their power in our face.”
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