Diplomatic Flaps Make Headlines, Lower-Level Meetings Will Make A Difference

When Edward Snowden sought asylum in Russia last month, US-Russian relations already were continuing on a steady decline. The decision by Russian President Vladimir Putin to grant Snowden, who leaked classified National Security Agency documents, a one-year reprieve, only served to worsen the situation.

According to the Wall Street Journal, the decision by President Obama to cancel a one-on-one meeting with Putin in Russia next month was not a consequence of the Snowden affair, but was “under discussion in the White House well before then” due to a lack of progress in talks on nuclear arms control, missile defense and the civil war in Syria.

“This was something that was evolving over time, and clearly the Snowden situation helped precipitate a decision,” Ben Rhodes, a U.S. deputy national security adviser, told the paper.

Simon Shuster of Time magazine views the cancellation of the meeting as working to the benefit of Obama with no upside for Putin.

“Putin has not yet replied to Obama’s snub, but most experts found it hard to  see how he could spin it in his favor,” he writes, adding that “the only ones who seemed to be celebrating Obama’s snub on Wednesday were  some of Putin’s harshest critics.”

Kori Schake of Foreign Policy, however, argues that Putin had little to gain from a face-to-face with Obama anyway.

“There is nothing now that Putin seems to want that Obama can give him. Or, to put it differently, the things Putin wants Obama has already given him: a de facto veto on American policies, from Syria to missile defenses, and quiescence on Russia’s authoritarian descent. The Obama administration has compromised a core U.S. interest — the ability to take action unilaterally or with like-minded allies — in return for Russian cooperation on second-order issues like Iran sanctions (which should be just one element of an Iran policy),” Schake asserts.

The cancellation of the meeting is largely an event of symbolic significance, while discussions between lower level officials possess far more significance.

“The cancelation of the bilateral meeting makes the U.S.-Russian talks in Washington this Friday that much more important. The presidents may not be meeting, but their senior officials are — and they have a chance to foster the cooperation necessary to address urgent nuclear threats confronting both nations. On Friday, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel and Secretary of State John Kerry will meet with their Russian counterparts Defense Minister Sergey Shoygu and Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov,” posits Joseph Cirincione on the DefenseOne blog.



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