Presidents Barack Obama and Vladimir Putin have plenty to be grumpy about, following the former's cancellation of an upcoming bi-lateral summit. (Source: Reuters)
Today, President Barack Obama announced that he would cancel his upcoming bi-lateral summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin in September. For many people, the reason seemed obvious: The Russian government granted NSA leaker and drama king Edward Snowden temporary asylum for one year, denying the American government the chance to extradite him on charges of espionage following the leaks of NSA surveillance programs that target the American populace to journalist Glenn Greenwald. But as hinted by the White House's statement, there is more to the cancellation than a mere whistleblower. Let us look up the recent history of Russo-American relations, and we easily see five things that could cause such a slight, despite Obama's promises of trying to continue talks.
Given that the Syrian Civil War has dropped off the news radar, except in brief spurts of some recent development, one would be forgiven if they ignored what was going on between a downtrodden and loose coalition of Islamist and secular fighters and the bloodthirsty regime of Bashar al-Assad. However, a larger geopolitical game is at play here. While the United States has been incredibly hesitant in supporting the rebels (and their claims of sending arms have proven fruitless), following the aftermath of the overthrow of Muammar al-Qaddafi in Libya supported by airstrikes, the Russians have fully embraced the Assad regime as their friend, supporting their claim that they are fighting terrorism. The Russians even sent high-grade military equipment to the regime recently. Because of Russia's veto ability on the UN Security Council, any attempts to sanction the Assad regime have proven fruitless, aggravating American attempts to shorten or end the war, though there have been some very recent green shoots on that front.. No doubt that was primarily the key issue for Obama in making this decision.
2. The Magnitsky Affair
Four years ago, a Russian lawyer and political activist, one Sergei Magnitsky, discovered his American-based company's assets were being handed over by the authorities following a police raid to figures in organized crime to create fronts for their activities, and allowed them to reclaim hundreds of millions of dollars in taxes paid. When Magnitsky exposed the fraud, he was arrested on trumped-up charges, and was later found dead while in custody. The American government responded last year by passing the Magnitsky Act, which sanctioned several top Russian officials implicated in both the initial scandal and Magnitsky's death. Out of spite, the Russians retaliated by passing the Dima Yakovlev Law, a bill that banned Americans from adopting Russian orphans, named after an adopted child who died of heat stroke after being left in a car for nine hours in Virginia.
3. LGBT rights and the Sochi Winter Olympics
The United States and Russia are essentially moving in opposite directions on the matter of gay rights. President Obama last year announced a shift, supporting gay marriage, and refused to support the Defense of Marriage Act as it was struck down by the Supreme Court. President Putin led the enactment of an "anti-propaganda" law that is intended to suppress and detain LGBT activists and gay people, and oversaw the suppression of a Moscow gay pride parade last year. To Putin's credit, he is merely extrapolating the views of an incredibly conservative country, which combined with its nationalism sees the notion of LGBT rights as the works of "Western agents." Still, that the Russian government intends to enforce the law during the Winter Olympics next year in Sochi has no doubt aggravated Obama, who cannot ensure the protection of his nation's athletes from Russian law, and is already hearing scorn from different corners of the globe. It also does not help matters that right-wing American Christian organizations are increasingly supporting such efforts in Russia, the irony of which cannot be lost on anyone.
4. The Boston Marathon bombings
To be fair to Putin, Russia has been incredibly sympathetic and supportive to Americans following the terrorist attack at the end of the Boston Marathon this year, and providing as much intelligence as it can regarding the two bombing suspects, Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. But given that the brothers Tsarnaev, themselves Chechen, traveled to Chechnya to further their agenda before advancing the plot, that Russian intelligence through the GRU and FSB likely knew of their actions and failed to give notice to the NSA and CIA about what was happening was a big slip on their part, and certainly caused a slight against American intelligence.
5. A political power play on Obama's part
Given the NSA leaks, the Obama administration has been trying hard to circumvent the mass leakage of intelligence that has been happening in the last few years, including several released by the convicted Army whistleblower Private First Class Bradley Manning. They have reason to be concerned about the leaks: Some have claimed the recent embassy lockdown in the Middle East due to an unspecified al-Qaeda threat occurred because of intelligence leaks. Obama's move to cancel the meeting on the grounds of Snowden had more to do with looking tough on national security ahead of what is likely to be a drubbing for his party in the midterm elections next year than with Snowden himself.