WASHINGTON — Already faltering, President Barack Obama's five-year effort to reboot U.S.-Russian relations finally crashed Wednesday, as the White House abruptly canceled his planned face-to-face summit with Russia's Vladimir Putin.
The effort to upgrade the relationship has fallen victim to the rapidly shrinking common ground between the former Cold War rivals, including extreme differences over the Syrian civil war, Russia's domestic crackdown on civil rights and -- the final straw -- the asylum granted to NSA leaker Edward Snowden.
The U.S. and Russian foreign and defense ministers will sit down in Washington later this week, but Obama canceled his planned early September summit in Moscow with Putin because of what the White House called a lack of "recent progress" on a wide array of critical issues. Such steps are not taken lightly, and the decision will almost certainly herald a new frostiness in already chilly ties.
"We have informed the Russian government that we believe it would be more constructive to postpone the summit until we have more results from our shared agenda," the White House said in a statement, citing deep differences over missile defense, arms control, trade, global security and human rights. "Russia's disappointing decision to grant Edward Snowden temporary asylum was also a factor that we considered in assessing the current state of our bilateral relationship," it added.
The Kremlin responded quickly, voicing its own disappointment with the canceled summit and blaming it on Washington's inability to develop relations with Moscow on an "equal basis." Putin's foreign affairs adviser, Yuri Ushakov, added that the decision was "clearly linked" to the Snowden case, a situation that he said wasn't of Russia's making.
While Snowden might have been the immediate catalyst for canceling the summit, the seeds of renewed U.S.-Russia discord were planted more than a year ago when Putin re-took the Russian presidency. On returning to power, he adopted a deeply nationalistic and more openly confrontational stance toward the United States than had his chosen successor Dmitry Medvedev, whose 2008-2012 tenure roughly overlapped Obama's first term in the White House.
Where Medvedev abstained in a U.N. Security Council vote that authorized NATO airstrikes in Libya, Putin has refused repeated entreaties from Washington to allow the world body to impose even minimal sanctions on President Bashar Assad's Syria. At the same time, Putin's government has continued to supply its ally Assad with weapons. And it has not delivered on pledges to coax Assad into sending representatives to talks with the opposition aimed at finding a political solution to the Syrian conflict.
Obama sought to cultivate Medvedev as a friend of the United States, making significant changes to Bush administration plans for European missile defense to try to ease Russian concerns about that project, signing a new arms control treaty and famously sending then-Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton to meet Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in Geneva where she proclaimed a "reset" in U.S.-Russia relations.
Putin, however, seems to want none of the coziness that a "reset" would bring and has actively sought to undo previous agreements on cooperation. Under Putin, Russia has stepped up its negative rhetoric on missile defense, ended two decades of democracy and civil society training by the U.S. Agency for International Development and banned adoptions of Russian children by Americans.
Andrew Kuchins, a political scientist and expert on Russian politics at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said he thinks the reset has been on hold for a while.
"We hit the peak at the end of 2010, and then things started going downhill gradually in 2011," Kuchins said. "Then, when the announcement was made that Putin was coming back as president in the fall of 2011, the downfall of the reset got a little steeper. "
But he said he does not think that Putin wants to "trash" the U.S.-Russia relationship and doesn't think relations are as bad as they were after the Georgia war in the fall of 2008 and 2009. In 2008, Georgia and Russia fought a brief war after Georgia launched an intense artillery barrage on the capital of South Ossetia, and Mikhail Saakashvili, the president of the former Soviet republic, forged a deeper relationship with the U.S.
"That was a pretty dangerous moment for the relationship," Kuchins said. "Right now, I don't see such a dangerous moment in the relationship, but we have some fundamental disagreements on nuclear security, missile defense, Syria. I don't think the Russians are taking positions just to counter us, undermine us. But they have some fundamental differences. They have a different way of looking at some things."
Ivo Daalder, former U.S. ambassador to NATO and now president of The Chicago Council on Global Affairs, said some positive steps have come from the reset, including Russia's willingness to help the U.S. transport military materiel in and out of Afghanistan.
"There still is cooperation on areas like Iran where Russia voted four times in the U.N. Security Council to impose new sanctions," Daalder said. "There is cooperation on North Korea -- Russia has voted for new sanctions. And those are material, positive steps in the relationship that have been the result of the reset."
But he said that a reset also suggests a future relationship and that despite meetings Vice President Joe Biden, Secretary of State John Kerry and former National Security Adviser Tom Donilon have had with Russian officials, there has been little progress on Syria, nuclear arms reduction and missile defense issues.
In April, Obama asked Donilon to hand-deliver a letter to Putin, proposing new ways to cooperate. Putin's foreign affairs adviser, Yuri Ushakov, said Obama's letter was "quite constructive" and contained specific proposals regarding arms control and economic cooperation.
But Daalder said Russia's responses to the letter have been "either nonexistent or negative."
Putin and Obama last met in June, on the sidelines of the summit of the Group of 8 industrial nations.
Putin said then that he believed the U.S. and Russia had an "opportunity to move forward on most sensitive directions."
Obama said then that the two nations were poised to increase trade and investment and had pledged to continue to work together to counter potential threats of proliferation and to enhance nuclear security.
"I think this is an example of the kind of constructive, cooperative relationship that moves us out of a Cold War mindset," Obama said.
That was just seven weeks ago.
On Tuesday, a day before he canceled his meeting with Putin, Obama said on NBC's "The Tonight Show" that there have been times where the Russians "slip back into Cold War thinking and a Cold War mentality."
Associated Press White House Correspondent Julie Pace contributed to this report.
More than Snowden keeping US, Russia at odds
By CONNIE CASS
WASHINGTON — How do U.S. leaders feel about Russia's behavior? Not angry, just very "disappointed."
Over and again as they try to patch up troubled relations, Obama administration officials end up reaching for that word that doleful parents use to scold a wayward teenager.
The latest disappointment -- Russia's embrace of a fugitive who leaked U.S. secrets -- pushed President Barack Obama to cancel a one-on-one summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin next month.
Moscow's willingness to harbor National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden is an example of the kinds of "underlying challenges" that keep getting in the way of his efforts to ease tensions between the former Cold War rivals, Obama says.
Some of the other issues frustrating U.S.-Russian relations:
The two nations are at odds over the civil war. Russia has shielded Syrian President Bashar Assad from international sanctions and provided him weapons, despite an international outcry.
The U.S. says Russia's support is allowing Assad to cling to power despite more than two years of violence which, according to United Nations estimates, already has killed 100,000 of his people.
Obama is seeking at least a modicum of cooperation from Russia to make way for the U.S. goal of ousting Assad. If they would, Russian leaders are in a position to persuade Assad to join rebels in peace talks to negotiate his departure.
Russians have a long-standing beef about the U.S. missile defense system planned for Europe, dating back to the Reagan administration's disputes with the Soviet Union. The Russians see the system as a threat to the viability of their own nuclear arsenal as a deterrent. American officials have always maintained that the missile defenses are meant to protect NATO allies and counter any threat from Iran.
Obama was denounced by Republican critics when in March 2012 he was caught, unaware that he was speaking into an open microphone, assuring Russia's then-president Dmitry Medvedev that he would have more flexibility on the issue once re-elected. Russia complains there's been little sign of movement on missile defense since Election Day.
Americans object to the way Russian leaders have tried to silence critical voices.
The White House said it was "deeply disappointed and concerned" when opposition leader Alexei Navalny was sentenced to five years in prison on embezzlement charges last month. A colorful blogger turned protest leader, Navalny challenged the Kremlin by exposing corruption, mocking Russian leaders and running for mayor of Moscow.
In April, the U.S. imposed financial sanctions on 18 Russians over human rights violations. The sanctions were sparked by the death in prison of a Russian lawyer, Sergei Magnitsky, who had accused police and officials of stealing $230 million in tax rebates. Officials accused of profiting from the scheme or persecuting Magnitsky were hit with sanctions.
U.S. leaders joined musicians and free speech advocates around the globe in denouncing the imprisonment last year of members of the punk rock band Pussy Riot. The three women were convicted of hooliganism after staging an anti-Putin protest inside a Russian Orthodox Church.
Putin bristles at the U.S. criticism.
Putin signed a law last year banning U.S. adoptions of Russian children. The move was viewed within the U.S. as retaliation for the Magnitsky law that set in motion human rights sanctions against Russian officials.
After returning to the presidency last year, Putin has waged a campaign of harassment and intimidation against civil society groups, the non-governmental organizations that take up causes such as protecting human rights, helping immigrants, defending voters' rights or promoting environmental protection.
Russia also expelled the U.S. Agency for International Development, which had promoted democracy and civil societies in Russia for two decades.
The Kremlin accused USAID of using its $50 million annual budget to influence Russian politics and elections and weaken Putin's hold on power.
Violence against gays long has been a problem in Russia. Now the U.S. is criticizing Russia for an official crackdown on gay rights.
A new Russian law imposes fines and up to 15 days in prison for people accused of spreading "propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations" to minors. The law covers views expressed online or in the news media. And it bans gay pride rallies.
Russian officials say the law will be enforced during the 2014 Olympics in the city of Sochi.
Asked about that Tuesday on "The Tonight Show," Obama said he has "no patience" for countries that intimidate or harm people because of their sexual orientation.