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No summit, small loss

Vladimir PutinRussiaBarack ObamaNational Security Agency

Given the rocky U.S.-Russia relationship that continues to sour despite President Barack Obama's earnest efforts to, as former secretary of state Hillary Clinton once put it, hit the "reset button" in dealings with the Kremlin, today's announcement that a planned summit meeting between Mr. Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin has been postponed indefinitely was not a surprise. Mr. Obama had every reason to heed calls from lawmakers urging him to cancel the engagement; there was little point to meeting with Russia's leader just for the sake of a meeting that would only puff up Mr. Putin's prestige at the president's expense.

White House spokesman Jay Carney said the "lack of progress" on a broad range of issues — from Syria's civil war and arms control to trade and human rights — made face-to-face talks between the two heads of state unhelpful, since there was little chance of a breakthrough. He added that Russia's decision to grant temporary asylum to accused NSA leaker Edward Snowden "was also a factor" — a diplomatic way of saying Mr. Putin's refusal to return the former NSA contract employee to the U.S., where he faces espionage charges, was the proverbial last straw.

Mr. Obama has been quite open about his desire to foster better relations with Russia in the post-Cold War era, and he has gone out of his way to reassure Mr. Putin that the U.S. is eager to cooperate with him on matters of mutual interest, such as fighting global terrorism and reducing the threat of nuclear weapons. But Mr. Putin has rarely reciprocated the president's overtures, and at times he has even seemed to seek out opportunities — such as his support for Syrian President Bashar Assad and his recalcitrance in the Snowden affair — to increase rather than lower tensions in the U.S.-Russian relationship.

That may play out to his advantage in his country's domestic politics by making him appear as a strong leader who isn't afraid to stand up to the world's only superpower. But ultimately such blustering works against the interests of both countries by creating a hostile atmosphere that discourages dialogue and reconciliation and prevents them from cooperating even on matters where their goals converge.

Mr. Obama spoke of his frustration over the difficulty of dealing with Russia in a late-night interview Tuesday with "Tonight Show" host Jay Leno. "There have been times where they slip back into Cold War thinking and a Cold War mentality," he said of the challenges the administration faces. "And what I consistently say to them, and what I say to President Putin, is that's the past, and we've got to think about the future, and there's no reason why we shouldn't be able to cooperate more effectively than we do."

For whatever reason, Mr. Putin seems not to have gotten the message, and the U.S. shouldn't reward him with a high-level summit for his intransigence. There's got to be a price for Mr. Putin's sticking his finger in an American president's eye, and the administration shouldn't stop at just canceling a meaningless summit to show its displeasure. There are plenty of ways the U.S. can quietly make the point that it is not to be toyed with while still remaining open to the possibility of improved relations with Moscow.

In praising Mr. Obama's decision to put off a face-to-face meeting with Russia's leader, New York Sen. Charles Schumer called Mr. Putin "a schoolyard bully" who "doesn't deserve the respect a bilateral summit would have accorded him." He got that right: At home, Mr. Putin has evolved into an egotistical tyrant governing through ever more heavy-handed tactics aimed at intimidating or silencing critics, trampling human rights and persecuting gay and transgender people.

We shouldn't be holding talks with such a leader, especially if they're not likely to result in agreements that produce tangible benefits. Since Mr. Putin has made it abundantly clear he's not interested in offering anything like that, Mr. Obama is perfectly justified in calling off this summit, and he can do so, moreover, without fear that anything important will be lost as a result.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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