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Obama Bails on His Inevitably Awkward Date With Putin

A week after Edward Snowden was granted temporary asylum in Russia, President Obama canceled his bi-lateral September summit in Moscow with Vladimir Putin, though administration officials are at pains to portray this as something greater than pure tit-for-tattery. Rather, they say, it was an excuse to avoid what, even without Snowden, would have been "a pretty dreary affair." 

A few days before Snowden turned up in Moscow, Obama and Putin met on the sidelines of the G8 conference in Northern Ireland. The resulting photo-op—Obama looking forlornly into the distance, Putin slouched and sullen—said it all: they looked like the aging couple at the neighboring table, intently working on their food and eavesdropping on your conversation because they had nothing to support one of their own. Moscow and Washington had talked and talked, they'd gotten START and the transport route to Afghanistan and the sanctions on Iran, but now, the kids are out of the house and they were talking past each other on Syria, on Iran, on pretty much everything. The one ray of light that June day was Putin and Obama signing a non-proliferation agreement to replace the expired Nunn-Lugar deal, but then Putin quickly an end to hopes that this would lead to more talks on arms control. He was done with what he said were overly "intrusive" agreements for the time being.

This came on the heels of a deep and bitter disagreement over Syria—Americans (rightly) accused the Russians of propping up Assad, and the Russians (rightly) accused the Americans of being dangerously naive on a post-Assad Syria—over Iran, and over Libya, where the Russians felt they had been duped into giving the Americans far more latitude militarily than they had intended to. 

By the time the Snowden scandal broke, the White House was furious, yes, but the incident also seemed to trigger a deeper reevalution of the Russian-American relationship inside the administration and State. What people were now talking about was not just Snowden, but, as some people from the foreign policy team phrased it, "what's left of the relationship." 

And yet, when news came from Washington that the September summit wasn't happening, that Washington thought it would be best for a break if not a total break up, Russia's response was muted and hurt. 

"We are disappointed by the U.S. administration's decision to cancel the visit of President Obama to Moscow planned in early September," said Yuri Ushakov, Putin's foreign policy advisor. "It is clear that the decision is due to the situation around the former U.S. special services employee Snowden, which we did not create." 

Not so, says Washington. "The question for them is: What would they want to talk about?" says Benjamin Rhodes, Obama's deputy national security advisor. "They're the ones who didn't want to talk about arms control."

He adds, "In 2009, we had a summit because we felt there was real progress"—that was the rosy dawn of the "reset," the age of agreements on Iran, the age of START and cooperation on military shipments to Afghanistan via Ulyanovsk, the age of ultimately useless bilateral presidential civil society councils. "This time, we actually thought it would be a good time to discuss missile defense," but the Kremlin sank that idea, and, by extension, the need for such a high-level meeting.

"Look," says Rhodes. "It doesn't mean we're pulling the plug. We just don't want to have a summit for the sake of having a summit."   

And for all the Kremlin's pouting, there's also a consensus in Moscow that, well, there's not much left to talk about. "Obviously, Obama just can't come to Moscow with Snowden there, but they made clear they're not totally shuttering the relationship," says Fyodr Lukyanov, editor of Russia in Global Affairs, a voice that, traditionally, is not far from the Kremlin's line. "Okay, well now, the score is now 1-1, but the other problem is that the relationship has no content now. Even if Obama came to Moscow, it's not really clear what they'd talk about." Lukyanov, who wrote exactly this almost an entire month ago, elaborates: "No one is prepared to discuss a new agenda"—Asia, who gets what in the Arctic—"and the old one is totally exhausted."

In other words, the Russians aren't mad, really. They know, as the Americans know, that they've reached a dead end of sorts, a cul-de-sac. The question now is, how do they get out of it? And, then where do they go, and how? Given that both governments have other priorities at the moment, and that both have realized that they don't really need each other, it seems the answers to those questions won't become apparent for a while.

And this, 22 years after the end of the Cold War, is the recalibration we've been waiting for.