By Jeremy Herb - 08/07/13 09:15 PM EDT
Lawmakers rallied around President Obama after he canceled a bilateral summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin Wednesday as U.S.-Russian relations appeared headed toward a deep chill. [WATCH VIDEO]
Both Republicans and Democrats praised Obama for snubbing Putin and opting not to travel to Moscow for the bilateral summit ahead of the September G-20 meeting in St. Petersburg, Russia, which he will still attend.
“The president clearly made the right decision,” Schumer said in a statement Wednesday. “President Putin is acting like a school-yard bully and doesn’t deserve the respect a bilateral summit would have accorded him.”
“This should help make clear that the Russian government’s giving Edward Snowden ‘refugee’ status is unacceptable," said Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce (R-Calif.). "Snowden should be sent to the U.S. to defend his actions in a U.S. court of law.”
The Snowden situation presented a dilemma for Obama after Russia gave him asylum, as the president would have faced criticism from lawmakers of both parties had he met with Putin.
But skipping the summit could make chilly U.S.-Russia relations even icier and threaten Obama’s major foreign policy initiatives, including further nuclear arms reductions and a resolution to the civil warn in Syria.
“I don’t think either side wants to completely trash the relationship, but Putin has been just sending so many negative signals for so long,” said Andrew Kuchins, director of the Russia and Eurasia program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “At some point, Obama’s got to take a stand and say, ‘I’m sick and tired and I’m not going to take any more of this.’ ”
Obama’s relations with Russia won’t get any easier after the G-20 meeting, either — and he’ll be hearing about Putin from both sides of the political spectrum.
Congressional hawks in both parties have slammed Moscow for backing Syrian President Bashar Assad in the Syrian civil war and over the protection of Snowden, who disclosed highly classified documents on the National Security Agency’s surveillance activities.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) last month suggested a boycott of the 2014 Winter Olympics in Russia over Snowden and Syria. Sen. John McCain’s (R-Ariz.) spokesman praised Obama on Wednesday, but called on him to also reconsider finishing the final phase of a European missile defense shield and to pursue tougher sanctions of human rights violators.
Liberals have also directed their ire toward Russia over a recently passed Russian law barring advocating for gay rights. Eighty-three House members sent a letter this week to Secretary of State John Kerry asking for him to ensure gay and lesbian athletes are protected at the 2014 Olympics.
Obama said Tuesday that he had “no patience for countries that try to treat gays and lesbians and transgendered persons in ways that intimidate them or are harmful to them,” when asked about the law by “The Tonight Show” host Jay Leno. “I think they understand that for most of the countries that participate in the Olympics, we wouldn't tolerate gays and lesbians being treated differently."
Foreign policy experts said that while Snowden provided the political impetus for Obama to cancel the meeting, the decision was also driven by the fact there was little for the president to gain from the summit.
Steven Pifer, director of the Brookings Institution's Arms Control Initiative and a former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, said the Obama administration had received no movement from Russia in recent months on major issues like nuclear arms reduction, missile defense cooperation, or even trade and investments. Russia has also stonewalled any action in the U.N. Security Council on Syria.
“Form their perspective, the prospects of having something come out of the summit were extremely low, if not zero,” Pifer said.
The decision was made even easier for the White House due to the outrage drummed up in Congress over the Snowden affair, which would have almost assuredly led to vocal criticism had Obama sat down with Putin.
“In this context, for the president to go to Moscow could have been kind of humiliating for him,” said Stephen Sestanovich, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations who specializes in Russian studies. “I think they were beginning to get the sense that Putin was showing such a lack of interest in the relationship that there was just no point.”
White House press secretary Jay Carney said that the summit was put off due to “lack of progress on issues such as missile defense and arms control, trade and commercial relations, global security issues and human rights and civil society.” Carney noted that Russia’s decision to grant Snowden asylum “was also a factor.”
Russian officials, meanwhile, played up Snowden’s role and said the invitation to Obama remained open.
“This decision is clearly linked to the situation with former agent of U.S. special services Snowden, which hasn't been created by us," Putin foreign affairs adviser Yuri Ushakov told reporters, according to The Associated Press.
A meeting between Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, Secretary of State John Kerry and their Russian counterparts was still scheduled to go on Friday despite the canceled summit.
Pifer said that these sorts of lower-level meetings are likely to be the way the two countries will communicate moving forward until something changes in the relationship between the two leaders.
“The message here to Putin is if he’s not prepared to engage on some of these questions like nuclear cuts or missile defense, maybe presidential engagement doesn’t make a lot of sense,” Pifer said.