Speaking at press-conference on August 9, President Obama explained the reason for his decision to cancel the September Moscow summit, “I think the latest episode is just one more in a number of emerging differences that we've seen over the last several months around Syria, around human rights issues, where it is probably appropriate for us to take a pause, reassess where it is that Russia is going, what our core interests are, and calibrate the relationship so that we're doing things that are good for the United States and hopefully good for Russia as well, but recognizing that there just are going to be some differences and we're not going to be able to completely disguise them”.
Even before the Snowden affair, US-Russian relations were at low ebb. With little progress on many issues of the agenda, the US President has taken a decision to “make a pause”. The comment, made at the August 9 press-conference, came two days after the White House announced it had canceled Obama’s planned September summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Obama said his decision to scrap the event was not based “simply around Mr. Snowden”, but rather on what he described as Russia’s failure tomove“ on a whole range of issues where we think we can make some progress.”
Facts of reality
The Obama’s press-conference comments left many questions unanswered or to be made precise. First, the President never mentioned the agreements already reached at the experts’ level. There are at least six documents devoted to economy, fight against terrorism, energy and free visa travel. They have been prepared and ready to be signed at the scrapped Moscow summit, their fate is hung in the air now. Neither did President Obama mention what he meant exactly saying there should be a pause in the relations. Does it mean the joint programs are to be curtailed, all of them or not, if not, which ones precisely?
There are facts about the Russia-US ties few people know and few media outlets mention. Speaking to journalists in Washington, Foreign Minister Lavrov mentioned some figures related to US cooperation with Russia on Afghanistan transit. Since the agreement with Russia came into force, over 265 thousand servicemen (just think about it!) were flown back and forth by 3400 flights. There are other aspects. Will the announced pause affect the Russian rockets getting cargo to the international space station? Will it have impact on the planned Geneva-2 international conference on Syria? Talking about the agenda, it’s expedient to recall that an eight-page bilateral cooperation agreement has been prepared for signature ceremony at the cancelled Moscow top level meeting. The very existence of such a document shows the both countries have a saturated agenda to talk about aside from well-known divisions. The two agreements – one on investments and trade and the other on fighting drug trafficking – were something the both sides considered as important breakthroughs. All the documents mentioned here had been worked out and agreed on before the Snowden’s case hit the world media pages. Will the “pause” encompass these foreign policy achievements just because the whistleblower is granted asylum in Russia on the condition not to harm the US anymore?
The very same day the “two plus two” talks were held in Washington bringing together the Russia’s and US foreign and defense chiefs. The Washington Post came out with the piece called Obama Acknowledges Decline in U.S.-Russia Relations under Putin actually stressing the point the both countries have an important international agenda to address and many issues unite them along with differences. So the decision to put it all aside looks more like cutting off one’s nose to spite one’s face. Is Ed Snowden important enough to ignore each other in view of the events in Egypt, for instance? Or Israel-Palestine stalemate and the prospects to gain progress here? The security on space is a minor thing? The Russia’s initiative at the “two plus two” meeting to regularly invite US observers to be present at Russian military exercises, is it a matter of no importance? As Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu said in Washington the 2014 military RF-US cooperation program is the most saturated one ever. The Americans are already invited to watch the West-2013 large-scale military exercise. They are also invited to take part in tank biathlon drill bringing in US tanks to Russia. Russia has put forward important initiatives in this field and it should be given proper attention to while presenting a picture of bilateral relations.
Tackling stumbling blocks
There are also things the US President mentioned that sound ridiculous to many people. Like raising the issue of gays rights, for instance. The Russia’s policy in this sphere is by and large the same as in over 70 states in the world, including US close allies. Some states legal systems envision death sentence for one sex relationship propaganda. But the very idea of mentioning the issue as an element of discord cannot be taken as something serious. This is simply not an issue at all, so why raise it at his level? Don’t ask, don’t tell principle settles it all perfectly, so gays are welcome to the Sochi Olympic Games.
True, there are many stumbling blocks. The relationship has been trending downward for the past year, at least. The sides had very different views of the Magnitsky issue, and both nations’ legislatures passed laws related to this issue that offended the other country. Syria is a point of division. The US and Russia have views on ballistic missile defense and further reductions in nuclear weapons. US-Russian economic relations remain at a very low level. The constant harping on the human rights on the part of the US, the country facing grave human rights problems domestically and internationally, is an irritant.
However, meetings and dialogue are essential, even if not at the presidential level. Iran with a new president is an example of an issue that could bring the parties closer. The election of Hassan Rouhani as president of Iran will probably open up new opportunities for diplomacy. President Putin is to visit Iran in a month. If the US and Russia get together, to pitch in and work jointly on this issue in the coming month, it will help improve relations.
Russia views US decision
Russia showed it wants no breakdown in ties and it never called the "two-plus-two" meeting into question. Sergey Lavrov made it clear that Moscow had been prepared to sign agreements on trade and nuclear research and security had it gone ahead. “At least we in Russia were prepared to table our proposals to the two presidents,” Lavrov said. “Of course, we have disagreements. We’ll continue discussing matters on which we disagree calmly and candidly,” he said. “We need to work as grown-ups. And this is what we do. And we hope that this will be reciprocal,” he told a press conference in Washington.
Moscow is disappointed with Washington's decision to cancel U.S. President Barack Obama's visit to Moscow, Russian President's aide Yury Ushakov said on August 9, "We are disappointed with the decision of the U.S. administration to cancel President Obama's visit to Moscow, which was planned for early September." He went on; "This problem testifies to the remaining unpreparedness of the United States to build an equal relationship." Meanwhile, the Kremlin aide stressed that the invitation for Obama The president of the United States was and remains invited to make a visit to Russia to visit Moscow remains open", he said to journalists. "Russia is ready to work with American partners on all items of our bilateral and multilateral agendas," he said.
Russian political analysts believe that the cancelation of summit stems from strong pressure on the U.S. President on the part of hawks in the Congress, “Obama is now under strong pressure from the 'cold war' lobby that exists in the U.S. Congress and stands in the way of improving the relations with Russia," said Sergei Markov, head of the Institute for Political Studies, told Interfax. The decision to scrap the meeting with Vladimir Putin is a sign of weakness, said United Russia General Council Secretary Sergei Neverov. "If the US powers that be find it acceptable to resort to ultimatum and pressure, that's their choice but I do not think it meets the national interests of common Americans," he added. German-Russian Forum Research Director Alexander Rahr said the cancellation of the visit was meant for a segment of US audience, "It looks very much like a relic of Cold War. It seems that Cold War stereotypes and customs are still alive and the reflexes manifest themselves whenever even a small conflict occurs." (6)
Many Russian experts warn against dramatizing the White House’s recent move because it is unlikely to damage Russian-US relations. Vilen Ivanov, Deputy Director of the Institute of Social and Political Research of the Russian Academy of Sciences, says, "There will be no ‘freezing’. Russia will continue its constructive policy of cooperation with the US because it serves our interests. The US has pulled some foreign policy blunders and is now trying to put things right by exerting pressure on everyone. However, this time the power game with Russia brought about no result.” The Chairman of the Russian State Duma Foreign Affairs Committee Alexey Pushkov wrote on his Twitter page that the US should realize Russia is not “America’s political colony” and the “pause” may be useful to give the White House some time to reconcile with the fact.
US violation of international extradition norms
On July 22 2013 Russian officials complained that the United States routinely disregards extradition requests by the Russian government. In separate statements officials from the Russian Interior Ministry and from the Prosecutor General’s Office complained that the United States had refused to extradite individuals sought by Russia as suspected terrorists or on serious criminal charges. Sergei Gorlenko, the acting chief of the Prosecutor General’s extradition office, told the Interfax news agency that “The United States is repeatedly refusing Russia to extradite individuals, to hold them criminally liable, including those accused of committing serious or heinous crimes.” He added, “We have been denied the extradition of murderers, bandits and bribe takers.” The Interior Ministry accused the United States of “double standards” in demanding Mr. Snowden’s return. The Prosecutor General’s Office said the United States had refused to extradite about 20 suspects over the past decade.
Russia accused the United States of kidnapping former pilot Konstantin Yaroshenko arrested in Liberia to be transferred to New York and face charges without Russia’s knowledge in May 2010. He was sentenced to 20 years in prison for allegedly conspiring to smuggle cocaine into the United States. The prisoner says he was framed because he refused to give evidence against Viktor Bout, a Russian national kidnapped in Thailand and then jailed for 25 years on arms trading charges in April 2012. Alexander Panin, a 24-year-old Russian computer programmer, was arrested at the airport after visiting the Dominican Republic to be charged with a variety of cyber-crimes committed in Russia without Moscow’s consent or knowledge. On July 22 Dmitry Ustinov, a Russian citizen, was extradited to the U.S. from Lithuania and accused of smuggling night-vision goggles. It would be interesting to imagine the reaction of Foggy Bottom, if Russia arrested American citizens in third countries to extradite to Moscow for trial on various charges.
The Russian Interior Ministry also cited the examples of Ilyas Akhmadov, a former senior leader of the Chechen separatist movement who is accused of terrorist activities by Russia. He is a special and egregious case. Akhmadov was granted political asylum in the United States in 2003 in spite of Russia’s repeated and amply documented demands for his extradition. As Professor Robert Bruce Ware asked some years ago ("Response to Brzezinski,”Johnson’s Russia List, March 20, 2005), “if the U.S. was right to declare the entire Taliban government a terrorist organization, why is Russia not right to declare the self-designed Chechen government – Akhmadov included – a terrorist organization?”
The man is directly responsible for the atrocities of the Chechen terrorist regime, including the invasion of the Russian Republic of Dagestan in the summer of 1999 when hundreds of unarmed men, women, and children were murdered. According to the UNHCR, 32,000 people were driven from their homes. Neither President Obama nor state Secretary John Kerry ever mentioned the case. And today Maskhadov remains in a mansion located in Washington D.C. while the US government makes common Americans, the taxpayers, give their hard-won dollars to keep the criminal comfortable there. Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said. "We have repeatedly told the US that if there are demands for our citizens, it is necessary to send relevant requests to the Russian law enforcement authorities on the basis of the 1999-bilateral agreement on mutual legal assistance in criminal cases. However, this is still not being done.” Let’s face the reality, the US has to explain why it has become a safe haven for international terrorists and why it grossly violates international extradition norms. Now it wants Snowden back. What goes around comes around. Still over and over again the US steps on the same rake of double standards.
The United States has found itself in a position to which it is not accustomed. Normally, it was the U.S. that granted asylum to whoever it found expedient. Now that the tables have been turned. Perhaps perplexedly to some degree, the US has to reckon with the same arguments offered by other countries giving refuge to US citizens. But the cancellation of summit is not really related to Snowden. It’s just a subterfuge. The real reason is the failure to reach progress on some issues, especially related to nonproliferation and security. Snowden is a red herring used to cover-up U.S.-Russia differences on controversial issues. Russia does not see any tragedy in the fact the summit is suspended. There is no tragedy here and there is nothing like going back to Cold-War. The both sides still have too serious issues to address.
The opinion is strong in Russia the US has no real interest in tackling the issues like missile defense, Afghanistan, Syria and Iranian nuclear program. It gives rise to some frustration and cooling the relationship, but there is nothing tragic in what’s going on. Achieving progress is important to all, including common Americans, even if it runs counter to the interests of some segment of US political higher ups. The US has much more to gain from talking to Russia seriously and on equal terms than making “pauses” setting aside hot issues of outstanding importance.