WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama is rethinking whether to hold a summit in Moscow with President Vladimir Putin next month after Russia rejected U.S. pleas and gave temporary asylum to former American spy agency contractor Edward Snowden, the White House said on Thursday.
White House spokesman Jay Carney said Obama and U.S. officials are “extremely disappointed” by Russia’s decision to give Snowden a one-year asylum in the face of entreaties from American officials to expel Snowden back to the United States to face espionage charges.
The Russian move also appeared to have put in doubt high-level talks scheduled for next week between U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and their Russian counterparts. These talks are now “up in the air,” a U.S. official told Reuters, speaking on condition of anonymity.
But the Obama administration’s response to Russia’s move was restrained compared to the swift retaliatory steps urged by U.S. lawmakers, including allies of Obama.
Snowden in June disclosed previously secret U.S. telephone and internet surveillance programs while in Hong Kong and then travelled to Russia, where he holed up in an airport for weeks.
Russia’s move raised questions about the policy of “resetting” U.S. relations with Russia that Obama embarked on after taking office in 2009, and put pressure on Obama to react decisively to what many saw as a Russian rebuke.
Obama’s first major decision is whether to go ahead with a one-on-one summit with Putin in Moscow next month in advance of a summit of G20 leaders in St. Petersburg.
“We are evaluating the utility of a summit, in light of this and other issues, but I have no announcement today on that,” Carney told reporters.
Obama currently plans to participate in the St. Petersburg event, but is giving no indication of going ahead with the Moscow summit with Putin. Face-to-face talks between Obama and Putin in Northern Ireland in June were tense. The two disagree over Syria, Russia’s human rights record and other issues.
Senator Chuck Schumer, a Democrat who is a strong Obama ally, urged the president to retaliate by recommending that the G20 summit be moved out of Russia.
“Russia has stabbed us in the back, and each day that Mr. Snowden is allowed to roam free is another twist of the knife,” Schumer said. “Given Russia’s decision today, the president should recommend moving the G20 summit.”
Republican Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham, already sharp critics of Putin, called the Russian action a disgrace and a deliberate effort to embarrass the United States.
“It is a slap in the face of all Americans. Now is the time to fundamentally rethink our relationship with Putin’s Russia. We need to deal with the Russia that is, not the Russia we might wish for. We cannot allow today’s action by Putin to stand without serious repercussions,” McCain and Graham said in a statement.
The two Republicans said the United States should retaliate boldly by, for example, pushing for completion of all missile-defense programs in Europe and moving for another expansion of NATO to include Russian neighbour Georgia.
“We have long needed to take a more realistic approach to our relations with Russia, and hopefully today we finally start,” they said.
Whether such steps were in the offing was unclear. Carney defended the “reset” in relations with Russia, saying it has proved beneficial on a host of issues, from cooperation on Afghanistan to dealing with Iran’s nuclear ambitions.
Snowden, a former National Security Agency contractor, faces U.S. criminal charges including espionage, theft of government property and unauthorized communication of national defense information.
The 30-year-old slipped quietly out of Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport on Thursday after being granted a year’s asylum in Russia, ending more than five weeks in limbo in the transit area.
There is a long list of U.S. differences with Russia on other issues, led by Russia’s support for President Bashar al-Assad in Syria’s civil war even as the United States calls for his departure.
Andrew Weiss, who was a Russia expert on the National Security Council under President Bill Clinton, said he did not think the Obama administration would make a decision on Obama’s planned trip to Russia until at least next week, after the Russian foreign and defense ministers visit Washington.
The Kerry and Hagel talks are supposed to cover arms control, missile defense, Iran and Syria.
“If the Russians, at those talks, demonstrate a dramatic change in their positions, it’s conceivable the (Moscow) trip will still go ahead. I think that’s exceedingly unlikely based on everything that’s happened in the past couple of months, where the Russians are not looking to be terribly collaborative with the United States on those issues,” Weiss said.
Additional reporting by Thomas Ferraro, Susan Cornwell and Patricia Zengerle; Editing by Alistair Bell and Will Dunham