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November 23, 2014

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Obama’s trip to Moscow is even more in doubt with Snowden asylum

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Steve Marcus

President Barack Obama boards Air Force One at McCarran International Airport after to kicking off his public push for immigration reform in Las Vegas, Nevada Tuesday, Jan. 29, 2013.

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This image made available by The Guardian Newspaper in London shows an undated image of Edward Snowden, 29. Snowden worked as a contract employee at the National Security Agency and is the source of The Guardian's disclosures about the U.S. government's secret surveillance programs, as the British newspaper reported Sunday, June 9, 2013.

President Barack Obama is even less likely to go through with a visit to Moscow this fall after Russia’s decision Thursday to grant Edward Snowden temporary asylum. For Obama, though, the Snowden affair is only one of myriad reasons to beg off the scheduled meeting with President Vladimir Putin.

The dispute over Snowden, the fugitive intelligence contractor, is less a singular sore point between the United States and Russia than a symptom of a relationship that has soured across the board. Even without it, administration officials and analysts said, it was not clear what Obama and Putin would talk about — let alone agree on.

From the Syrian civil war and Iran’s new president to missile defense and nuclear arms reductions, the United States and Russia are miles apart on virtually every major issue they discuss.

The White House, which began debating last month whether to cancel the September trip, said Obama still had not made a final decision.

“Obviously this is not a positive development,” said White House spokesman Jay Carney. “We are evaluating the utility of a summit.”

“There is no question that there are a range of issues, setting aside the disposition of Mr. Snowden, on which we are currently in disagreement with Russia,” he added.

The decline in the U.S.-Russian relationship has been remarkably swift since Putin’s return to the presidency last year. Lately it has taken on a tit-for-tat quality reminiscent of the Cold War: Russia barred Americans from adopting Russian babies; the United States blacklisted 18 Russians accused of human-rights violations.

The Russian government gave the White House no advance notice of its decision on Snowden, Carney said, making it clear that weeks of public and private diplomacy had gone nowhere.

For a White House keen to extract concrete results from a face-to-face meeting with Putin, the differences on geopolitical and security issues are an equally compelling reason to scrap the meeting.

“If you look at the major issues — Syria, nuclear arms, missile defense — it doesn’t look like there would be anything to sign,” said Angela E. Stent, a former national intelligence officer on Russia who is now at Georgetown University. “The question is, What would they do?”

Putin, she said, does not appear interested in accelerating talks over reductions in nuclear stockpiles, which Obama made the centerpiece of his speech in Berlin in June. Putin continues to express suspicions that the U.S. missile-defense system in Europe is targeted at Russia, even after it was modified by the Obama administration.

On Syria, the Russians have refused to abandon their support for President Bashar Assad. Some analysts said the shifting momentum of the battle in recent weeks would only reinforce their belief that they were right. Russia is also viewed as more open than the United States to dealing with Iran’s new president, Hasan Rouhani.

When Snowden first applied for asylum in Russia, Putin appeared to be trying to walk a fine line with the United States, warning Snowden that if he were granted permission to stay in the country, he could not disclose further classified documents.

“If he wants to stay here, there is one condition,” Putin said. “He must cease his work aimed at inflicting damage to our American partners, as strange as it may sound from my lips.”

By granting Snowden asylum, however, Putin was implicitly rejecting the White House’s contention, repeated Thursday, that Snowden is not a whistle-blower but a rogue contractor accused of a felony, who poses a huge risk to his nation’s national security.

Russian officials have told visiting Americans that harboring Snowden indefinitely in the transit area of Moscow’s airport was “beginning to look ridiculous,” and that there was no other option to move him, said Dmitri K. Simes, a Russia expert and president of the Center for the National Interest, a research center in Washington.

But he and Stent both said the decision reflected a more fundamental calculation by Putin not to accommodate Obama.

“However important it would be to have his position validated by a presidential visit,” Stent said, “that is trumped by other issues.”

The temporary nature of Snowden’s asylum could give Putin added leverage in the coming year, as he negotiates with Obama over issues like arms reductions, Syria and Iran. Despite an anti-American streak, Putin is deeply pragmatic, Stent said.

The last time the two leaders met, at a Group of Eight meeting in Northern Ireland in June, Obama tried to lighten the tense mood with a joke about how age was depleting their athletic skills. Putin, with a frigid smile, replied, “The president just wants to get me to relax.”

Given all the tension between the United States and Russia, Simes said that Russian officials would probably be just as relieved if Obama did not show up. The president is also scheduled to attend a meeting of the Group of 20 industrialized nations in St. Petersburg, and there was no indication Thursday that he would pull out of that.

Obama was pressed from another direction on the issues raised by Snowden’s leaks, when a group of lawmakers from the Senate and House met with him, at his invitation, in the Oval Office on Thursday to discuss the National Security Agency’s surveillance methods.

One of the participants, Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., a member of the Intelligence Committee, said afterward that he had reiterated his concerns about the legal basis for the NSA program that is collecting records of all Americans’ phone calls and the scant evidence that any terrorist plot would have reached fruition without it.

Wyden said he also discussed his proposal to require a warrant before intelligence officials may search databases of intercepted phone calls and emails picked up by targeting noncitizens abroad for incidentally intercepted Americans’ communications.

Another participant, Rep. Robert W. Goodlatte, R-Va., said: “I stressed to the president that Congress must ensure that the laws we have enacted are executed in a manner that is consistent with congressional intent and that protects both our national security and our civil liberties. We must ensure that America’s intelligence gathering system has the trust of the American people.”

The White House described the meeting as constructive but gave no details. While Wyden declined to discuss what Obama said, he said the president “was open and fair to everyone, wanted to hear all sides — everybody got a chance to talk — and he was interested in suggestions.”

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