White House signals Obama may snub Putin over Snowden asylum

The White House for the second day in a row signaled President Obama could scrap planned one-on-one talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin next month in Moscow if Edward Snowden is granted asylum in that country.

White House press secretary Jay Carney on Wednesday refused to elaborate on the president’s autumn travel plans, admitting it was possible he was being “deliberately vague.”

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Asked specifically about whether plans still stood for Obama to travel to Moscow Sept. 3-4 for a bilateral summit ahead of the G-20 meeting in St. Petersburg, Carney said he had “no further announcements on our travel to Russia.”

“The president intends to go to Russia in September,” he said.

The use of the word “intends,” suggested some flexibility in the president’s plans, and when a reporter noted that he was saying Russia — not Moscow — Carney admitted, “I just have nothing else to say on it.”

A similar back-and-forth took place Tuesday, when Carney said the president still planned to attend the G-20 summit.

Asked Tuesday if he was being “intentionally vague,” Carney cracked a smile. “I don’t have anything to add,” he repeated.

Foreign policy experts said Carney’s posturing from the White House was clearly intended to send a signal to the Kremlin that Obama could snub Putin over Snowden.

“The White House is being deliberately vague because they want to keep pressure on Russia to discourage Putin from granting Snowden asylum, whether temporary or permanent,” said Georgetown University international relations professor Charles Kupchan.

Having Obama arrive in the city hosting Snowden, who is wanted for espionage, could be embarrassing for the White House.

The administration also wants to find whatever leverage it can to convince Moscow not to give Snowden safe harbor.

Adding more intrigue to the situation is that fact that Putin snubbed Obama last year by skipping out on a G-8 summit at Camp David that had been moved from the president’s hometown of Chicago partially to accommodate the Russian president. 

Putin was wary of traveling to the Chicago meeting, which would have coincided with a NATO summit where the U.S. and European allies planned to discuss a missile defense shield Putin had decried as a threat to his country. But despite the change of venue, Putin still declined the invitation, claiming he needed to work on building his new Cabinet.

The Putin-Obama meeting in Moscow is important to Russia, which wants to strengthen trade with the U.S. It’s a chance for Putin to project his presidential power after mass protests earlier this year and to repair diplomatic ties with the U.S. strained by Snowden and differences over the war in Syria.

Putin on Wednesday signaled he does not want Snowden, who remains in Moscow’s airport, to hurt relations with the U.S.

“Bilateral relations, in my opinion, are far more important than squabbles about the activities of the secret services,” Putin told reporters Wednesday in Siberia, according to Reuters.

Foreign policy experts say Moscow would be embarrassed if Obama bails out of the meeting with Putin.

“Part of Putin’s grand strategy as a president is to bolster his domestic strength by projecting Russian power on the global stage … by playing with the big boys, and I think that it would be problematic for Putin if the American president refused to come to Moscow for a one-on-one meeting,” Kupchan said.

But it’s also risky for Obama, who depends on Russian cooperation on problems created by Syria, Iran and North Korea. Obama also hopes to convince Putin to reduce his nuclear stockpile by about 500 weapons as part of an arms initiative announced this summer in Berlin.

Observers said they were skeptical the White House’s posturing would compel Moscow to act on Snowden.

“The idea that we can bargain with the Russian authorities about a possible exit [for Snowden] from their territory seems far-fetched,” said Andrew Weiss, a former Russia expert in the Clinton White House and the vice president for studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Weiss says that while the Russians now realize that Snowden “is a hot potato that’s better off not being in their lap,” Putin — an ex-intelligence official — is concerned by the precedent that would be set by returning Snowden to the United States.

“If the Russian government could be seen handing over a former intelligence person to the U.S. for prosecution, they’d be seen as rolling up the welcome mat to people in the future who would cooperate with their intelligence services,” Weiss said.

Protecting Snowden is also politically popular in Russia, where many relish the opportunity to embarrass the United States on security human rights issues, which are frequent targets for American critics of Russia.

 “Since the demonstrations that started in the fall of 2011, anti-Americanism has been very much a part of [Putin’s] platform,” Brookings Institution fellow Angela Stent said.

Still, agreeing to house the 30-year-old former defense contractor, even if he agrees to meet Putin’s demands to cease his leaks, would further strain relations with the U.S.

“The situation continues to have a life of its own and be extremely unpredictable,” Weiss said. “It puts anyone planning overseas travel on behalf of the president in a difficult situation.”

Kupchan said Snowden represents a risk for both countries.

“The Russian government and the U.S. government are in a kind of Kabuki theater in which both of them would actually like to see this issue go away,” he said. “But exactly how that happens remains to be seen.”

— Updated at 8:15 p.m.