There is plenty of justification for President Barack Obama to have canceled the summit meeting planned for September with Russian President Vladimir Putin. The nominal justification for this unusual action is Russia's handling of the United States' request to turn Edward Snowden over to stand trial for espionage.
Whatever your opinion of Snowden's release of classified information and departure from the United States, the undisputed fact is that he exposed some very highly sensitive information regarding NSA's domestic surveillance programs, most notably the PRISM program. His actions have already resulted in Obama promising to produce "appropriate reforms" in domestic surveillance activities, and it is likely that protection for whistle-blowers also will be strengthened; but for now, Snowden's flight to Hong Kong and Russia and the list of countries where he sought asylum leave some residual doubt in my mind about his motives.
In any event, Putin decided it is worth his while to allow Snowden to stay in Russia.
Putin's blatant hypocrisy in championing Snowden's case as an example of American human rights shortcomings would be comical were it not for the damage it causes.
Obama has no other leverage than diplomatic maneuvering to express his displeasure, and so the summit is a casualty of Snowden's actions and Putin's reactions.
But even without the toxic effects of the Snowden affair, the summit would likely have been non-productive. Events leading up to this year's G-20 meeting have pointed out how difficult diplomacy has become. In March, the United States declared six Russians persona non grata for their activities with former FBI agent turned spy, Robert Hanssen. Two months later, Russia expelled a U.S. diplomat, allegedly for attempting to recruit a Russian intelligence officer as a spy. This kind of tit-for-tat retaliation has been going on for almost as long as there's been espionage, so in isolation, it would not appear to have much impact on U.S.-Russia relations. But the expulsions did not occur in isolation.
In 2012, Congress passed the Magnitsky Act, which barred 18 Russians connected with the suspicious death of jailed Russian whistle-blower Sergei Magnitsky from entering this country. In essence, this law punishes the Russians for human rights abuses. The Obama administration opposed the bill, preferring to use methods that would not publicly embarrass the Russians and provoke them into another cycle of retaliation, which is precisely what did occur. They blacklisted 18 Americans and blocked all U.S. adoptions of Russian children, claiming that adoptees were routinely mistreated and that at least one had died from abuse. In addition, Russia's anti-gay legislation has drawn fire from most of the world's democracies.
These and many other events highlight an increase in tensions between the two countries. It seems that a large portion of that increase is attributable directly to Putin himself. His presidency is built on what Obama described as "more rhetoric on the Russian side that was anti-American, that played into some of the old stereotypes about the Cold War contest between the United States and Russia."
Several concrete issues, such as arms reduction or cooperation on dealing with terrorism, are being discussed at the ministerial level between secretaries John Kerry and Chuck Hagel and their Russian counterparts. At least at this level, diplomats are trying to give the impression of business-as-usual; foreign minister Sergei Lavrov tried to spin Obama's cancellation by saying that the one-on-one meeting had merely been "postponed."
Perhaps Putin's rhetoric is directed toward a Russian domestic audience to build up support for what seems to be his cult of personality. Maybe he sees relations between the two countries as a zero-sum game, where one side's wins come at the other's expense. It's tough to know just what the former KGB officer's real motives are. But whatever they are, it is to everyone's advantage for cooperation between the United States and Russia to be more than cosmetic.