The summit meeting would have been useful as a way to reinvigorate the relationship, as a way to signal to the bureaucracies in both countries about what they needed to do in order to get the relationship moving again. There's always kind of a tension between having the two leaders meet in order to push the process forward, and then the role that the summit plays as a kind of symbolic message about the state of the relationship.
US President Barack Obama cancelled his planned summit with President of Russia Vladimir Putin. Member of the Valdai discussion club Jeffrey Mankoff discusses the reasons for the decision.
What consequences will Obama’s decision have for bilateral relations now? Should we expect another chill in Russian-US relations?
I think we've already seen the chill. It's been building for quite a while now, and the cancellation of the summit is just the latest evidence of that. That said, the relationship is continuing, and the 2+2 meetings between the foreign and defense ministers are happening. President Obama is still going to be in St. Petersburg for the G20, and there may be a pull-aside meeting with President Putin there. So the relationship is still functioning. But definitely in terms of the tone, and in terms of the priority it's received, it's diminished, and the cancellation is just another sign of that.
Does this mean that Obama will not be willing to prioritize Russia to the same extent as before?
I think that's definitely a consideration. Especially during Obama's first term, Russia was the high priority, because there was a sense in the administration that Russia could play a constructive role in a number of key foreign policy issues that the U.S. was dealing with, including the war in Afghanistan, the Iranian nuclear program, and others. And generally, in that context the reset with Russia was successful. But I think now there's a belief that the positions of the U.S. and Russia are diverging on a number of key issues, including Syria, and therefore that spending the president's limited time and resources focusing on Russia to the extent that the administration did a couple of years ago may not make sense, especially if it seems that Moscow’s priorities are diverging, that the anti-Americanism is making a comeback and the Kremlin seems to be less accommodating.
Do you think the only reason was the Snowden issue?
The Snowden issue was the final straw. But given the kind of deadlock in the relationship, there were questions in any case about how productive a summit was going to be. And you know, if you look at the statements that were put out by the White House and the State Department announcing the decision to cancel the summit, what they focus on, more than Snowden, is the belief that the summit wouldn't really be productive, that there's so much distance between the U.S. and the Russian positions on the main substance of the agenda that there wouldn't be enough concrete deliverables coming out of the agenda to really justify it. Now, in the absence of the Snowden case would they have gone ahead anyway and had kind of a summit for show – possibly. I think certainly it was Snowden that tipped the decision in that direction. But even apart from Snowden, there was concern that this wasn't going to be a very useful or productive summit, and that it was mostly just going to be a photo-op for Putin.
Was this decision made under the pressure from conservatives, being a reflection of the domestic policy or not?
I think partially, it was. Certainly, for President Obama to go to Moscow after the decision on Snowden was made would have subjected him to a lot of domestic pushback, including on Capitol Hill. And President Obama has shown that he's willing to endure that kind of pushback, if there are concrete gains to be gotten. And what happened with the summit, I think, is that the administration was trying to weigh the benefits and the negatives. They decided that the potential benefits, in terms of concrete deliverables on the issues that they really cared about, like arms control, Syria, and everything else, were not going to be worth the domestic pushback that they would get. So certainly I think there was a domestic element to this decision. But that's not the only reason or even the most important reason.
What could lead Russia and the United States to the negotiating table? Don’t you think it would be better to discuss the problem, not to cancel a possibility to meet?
I think here again, it depends on how productive the meeting was actually going to be. You don't want the leaders to get together for a big summit meeting and then have them be arguing and not come out of that meeting with any concrete agreements. So if those agreements weren't going to be forthcoming, cancelling makes sense. Personally, I think that a summit meeting would have been useful as a way to reinvigorate the relationship, as a way to signal to the bureaucracies in both countries about what they needed to do in order to get the relationship moving again. There's always kind of a tension between having the two leaders meet in order to push the process forward, and then the role that the summit plays as a kind of symbolic message about the state of the relationship. And as useful as it would have been, I think, for Obama and Putin to meet, to try to bridge some of the gaps in the American and Russian positions on these issues, the symbolism of a summit under the present circumstances seems to have outweighed the potential benefits of the meeting actually taking place.