There is no audible opposition from Congress to President Barack Obama’s announcement today that he’s backing out of next month’s scheduled meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
The tenor of the initial reaction from lawmakers in both parties has been totally supportive of the diplomatic slap, which is pushing the United States closer to an outright canceling of the “reset” in Russian relations that Obama had been long promoting — and which many in Congress had been resisting. Many senators and House members had been urging the president to spurn the long-planned Putin meeting. If there was an undercurrent of criticism after today’s announcement, it was in mumbled versions of “What took him so long?” from the president’s most ardent Republican critics.
The presidential snub is a clear signal of anger and frustration with the Putin government for permitting fugitive intelligence analyst Edward Snowden to remain in Russia instead of returning him to the United States so he could be prosecuted for his disclosures of national security secrets. But tension between the two countries has been building for months, most acutely over the Russians’ support for the Assad regime in Syria.
The one-day summit was supposed to happen in Moscow in four weeks, just before the G-20 meeting of the world’s most economically powerful countries opens in Russia’s second city, St. Petersburg.
The White House said the president will still attend that annual meeting, which some in Congress had called on him to boycott because of its location. Other members have encouraged a boycott of next year’s Winter Olympics in the Russian city of Sochi, a chorus that has grown louder since Putin’s crackdown on gay rights.
“Given our lack of progress on issues such as missile defense and arms control, trade and commercial relations, global security issues, and human rights and civil society in the last 12 months, we have informed the Russian government that we believe it would be more constructive to postpone the summit until we have more results from our shared agenda,” the White House said. “Russia’s disappointing decision to grant Edward Snowden temporary asylum was also a factor that we considered in assessing the current state of our bilateral relationship.”
The first statement of congressional support came from Sen. Charles E. Schumer, a normally reliable ally of the president’s who had been pushing him publicly to back out of the meeting. “Putin is acting like a school-yard bully and doesn’t deserve the respect a bilateral summit would have accorded him,” the New York Democrat said.
Instant analysis in Moscow was that the president was reluctantly caving to congressional pressure. “This indicates that Obama is failing to lead relations with Putin toward improvement,” Sergei Markov, director of the Institute for Political Studies on Moscow, told the Voice of Russia. “Even though the U.S. president is trying to do so, he clearly lacks the power. Obama is now under strong pressure from the Cold War lobby that exists in the U.S. Congress and Senate and it does not let the American president improve relations with Russia.”
Obama himself brought up the Cold War in his policy-centered interview with Jay Leno on Tuesday’s “Tonight Show,” saying of the Russian government: “There have been times where they slip back into Cold War thinking and a Cold War mentality.”