WASHINGTON — President Obama may cancel a scheduled trip to Moscow to meet with President Vladimir Putin in September as the standoff over the fate of Edward Snowden, the former National Security Agency contractor seeking asylum there, takes its toll on already strained relations between the United States and Russia, officials said Thursday.
The White House announced the Moscow meeting in June as an extra stop on an already planned trip to St. Petersburg for the annual gathering of the Group of 20 nations. But while Obama is still committed to going to St. Petersburg, he is now rethinking the Moscow stop, not just because of the impasse over Snowden but because of a range of issues dividing the two countries.
A cancellation of the Moscow meeting would be seen as a direct slap at Putin, who is known to value such high-level visits as a validation of Russian prestige. While the White House may be using the meeting as leverage to win cooperation as it seeks the return to the United States of Snowden, who is now staying at Moscow’s airport, the reconsideration also reflects a broader concern that the two countries are far apart on issues such as Syria, Iran, arms control and missile defense.
The White House has not publicly confirmed the prospect of scrubbing the Moscow meeting but has sent unmistakable signals that it is now on the table. Asked directly Wednesday whether Obama was still going to Moscow before the G-20 meeting in St. Petersburg, Jay Carney, the White House press secretary, declined to say.
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“I can say that the president intends to travel to Russia for the G-20 summit,” Carney said. “I don’t have anything to add to what we’ve said in the past about that trip.”
If Obama does cancel his stop in Moscow, he could still meet with Putin on the sidelines of the St. Petersburg meeting to avoid a bigger rupture. But some critics have urged Obama to be even more aggressive in responding to Russia’s harboring of Snowden.
Putin did not say whether Snowden, whose arrest the United States is seeking for his disclosures of classified documents on the NSA’s surveillance programs, would be granted asylum but repeated his past condition that he desist from activity that might harm the United States.
“We warned Mr. Snowden that any action by him that could cause damage to Russian-American relations is unacceptable to us,” Putin said.
The dispute over Snowden, however, has brought home the deeper divide between Washington and Moscow. The conviction of Aleksei Navalny, a prominent leader of the opposition to Putin, on embezzlement charges Wednesday exacerbated U.S. concerns over repression of political dissent in Russia. It followed a week after the posthumous conviction of Sergei, a lawyer investigating official corruption who was arrested and died in custody.