President Barack Obama’s decision to cancel a planned one-on-one meeting with the Russian President during next month’s G20 summit in St Petersburg was widely seen as plunging US-Russian relations back into the deep freeze. That is one reading. But there is another. With Edward Snowden – American’s current “most wanted” – granted temporary asylum in Russia, the US public, not to speak of Congress, would have taken a very dim view of their President consorting with Vladimir Putin as though nothing had happened. It must be noted, though, that Obama has not cancelled his trip to St Petersburg as some have urged him to do. There is a snub, but it is a snub Putin will understand. His spokesman described the announcement from the White House as merely “disappointing”.
Rather than heralding a new Cold War, this is actually of a piece with the unusual restraint exercised by both sides since Snowden first landed at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport. There was a time, in the real Cold War, where someone with Snowden’s intelligence background, seeking refuge in Moscow, would have been feted by the authorities as a trophy and settled in a lavish – by Soviet standards – flat close to the Kremlin. The authorities would have let slip no opportunity to remind Washington about their prize defector.
Snowden has been nothing but an embarrassment to today’s Kremlin. Putin is damned (by Washington and the American public) if he grants Snowden asylum or allows him free passage to a third country and damned (by human rights campaigners) if he does not. It is significant that Russia has so far granted Snowden only temporary asylum, has warned him not to use his information as propaganda against the US and has not paraded him once in public. His only appearance was to a small audience at a meeting chaired by Russian free-speech activists. The authorities stayed behind the scenes.
Both Obama and Putin are well aware of each other’s predicament, having discussed the case three times by phone. So long as Snowden is in Russia, a pall is bound to hang over US-Russian diplomatic relations. But so far a serious froideur has been averted. It should be a cause for optimism that Putin is trying so hard to keep relations with the US on an even keel.