Moscow Trip for Obama May Be Off as Snowden Tensions Build

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WASHINGTON -- President Obama may cancel a scheduled trip to Moscow to meet with President Vladimir V. Putin in September as the standoff over the fate of Edward J. Snowden, the former National Security Agency contractor seeking asylum there, takes its toll on already strained relations between the United States and Russia, officials said Thursday.

The White House announced the Moscow meeting in June as an extra stop on an already planned trip to St. Petersburg for the annual gathering of the Group of 20 nations. But while Mr. Obama is still committed to going to St. Petersburg, he is now rethinking the Moscow stop, not just because of the impasse over Mr. Snowden but due to a whole range of issues dividing the two countries.

A cancellation of the Moscow meeting would be seen as a direct slap at Mr. Putin, who is known to value such high-level visits as a validation of Russian prestige. While the White House may be using the meeting as leverage to win cooperation as it seeks the return to the United States of Mr. Snowden, who is now staying at Moscow's airport, the reconsideration also reflects a broader concern that the two countries are far apart on issues like Syria, Iran, arms control and missile defense.

The White House has not publicly confirmed the prospect of scrubbing the Moscow meeting, but has sent unmistakable signals that it is now on the table. Asked directly on Wednesday if Mr. Obama is still going to Moscow before the G-20 meeting in St. Petersburg, Jay Carney, the White House press secretary, declined to say. "I can say that the president intends to travel to Russia for the G-20 summit," Mr. Carney said. "I don't have anything to add to what we've said in the past about that trip."

If Mr. Obama does cancel his stop in Moscow, he could still meet with Mr. Putin on the sidelines of the St. Petersburg meeting to avoid a bigger rupture. But some critics have urged Mr. Obama to be even more aggressive in responding to Russia's harboring of Mr. Snowden.

Senator Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina, said that the president should push to move the G-20 meeting out of Russia altogether and that the United States should boycott the Winter Olympic Games set for 2014 in Sochi, Russia.

"President Obama, should you go to St. Petersburg, Russia, for the G-20 summit if they give Snowden asylum and they don't change their policy toward Syria and continue to help Iran?" Mr. Graham said Wednesday on "The Lead with Jake Tapper" on CNN. "Should you go? My advice to you is I wouldn't go to St. Petersburg. I would ask for a change of venue."

While using the Snowden affair to jab the United States for supposed hypocrisy in prosecuting a whistle-blower, Mr. Putin has also made clear that he does not want the showdown to harm ties. "Bilateral relations, in my opinion, are far more important than squabbles about the activities of the secret services," he told Russian reporters who asked Wednesday about the scheduled Moscow meeting.

Mr. Putin did not say whether Mr. Snowden, whose arrest the United States is seeking for his disclosures of classified documents on the N.S.A.'s surveillance programs, would be granted asylum but repeated his past condition that he desist from activity that might harm the United States. "We warned Mr. Snowden that any action by him that could cause damage to Russian-American relations is unacceptable to us," Mr. Putin said.

But the dispute over Mr. Snowden has only brought home the deeper divide between Washington and Moscow. The conviction of Aleksei A. Navalny, a prominent leader of the opposition to Mr. Putin, on embezzlement charges on Wednesday exacerbated American concerns over repression of political dissent in Russia. It followed a week after the posthumous conviction of Sergei L. Magnitsky, a lawyer investigating official corruption who was arrested and died in custody.

Some Republicans in Washington also expressed concern Wednesday at reports that Russia is violating its obligations under the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces treaty of 1987. Mr. Putin last month publicly questioned the utility of that treaty.

At a hearing on Capitol Hill, Senator Kelly Ayotte, Republican of New Hampshire, asked senior military leaders if the reports of treaty violations were true. Adm. James A. Winnefeld Jr., the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said he could not answer in an unclassified briefing.

Such violations would make it unwise to pursue further nuclear arms cuts with Russia, Ms. Ayotte said. "Given the behavior of Russia, I think it is at best naïve to think that we're going to be able to negotiate any kind of further reductions, which I would oppose," she said. "I don't think that is the right direction for the protection of this country."

Mr. Obama announced in a June speech in Berlin that he wanted to negotiate another round of arms cuts with Russia, cutting each side's stock of deployed strategic warheads by another third beyond the New Start treaty signed in his first term. The administration hoped to advance that initiative at the September meeting in Moscow by framing future discussions over reductions.

But Mr. Putin has linked further reductions to a range of other strategic issues, including American plans to build a missile defense system in Europe. Mr. Obama has already scaled back the system so it more clearly targets medium range missiles by states like Iran, not Russia's large arsenal of long-range missiles. But Russia is still not mollified and Republicans in the Senate have made clear they would not accept additional changes to the missile defense system.

Angela E. Stent, a former national intelligence officer on Russia now at Georgetown University, said Obama administration officials are questioning the Moscow meeting because they "are not clear what will actually be signed" even if Mr. Snowden's case is resolved by then. "There seem to be significant gaps between Russia and U.S. sides on these important issues such as Syria, missile defense and arms control," she said.

Ms. Stent, author of a forthcoming book on Mr. Putin and Russian-American relations, said canceling the Moscow meeting would be a big signal.

Russia's prime minister in the 1990s abruptly turned his airplane around while en route to the United States when the Kosovo war was about to begin. Last year, Mr. Putin skipped a Group of 8 meeting at Camp David and Mr. Obama skipped an Asia-Pacific summit meeting in Russia that he had never committed to attending.

But Ms. Stent said she could not recall another time since the cold war that an American president called off a meeting that was already scheduled. "If they do cancel that part of the summit, that's unprecedented since the collapse of the Soviet Union from the American side," she said. "And it raises the question for the Obama administration – Russia's not going to be a high priority for the rest of the term."

Thom Shanker contributed reporting.


This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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