WASHINGTON --- Already faltering, President Obama's five-year effort to reboot U.S.-Russian relations finally crashed Wednesday, as the White House abruptly canceled his planned face-to-face summit with Russia's Vladimir Putin.
The effort to upgrade the relationship has fallen victim to the rapidly shrinking common ground between the former Cold War rivals, including extreme differences over the Syrian civil war, Russia's domestic crackdown on civil rights and -- the final straw -- the asylum granted to NSA leaker Edward Snowden.
The U.S. and Russian foreign and defense chiefs will sit down in Washington later this week, but Obama canceled his planned early September summit in Moscow with Putin because of what the White House called a lack of "recent progress" on a wide array of critical issues. Such steps are not taken lightly, and the decision almost certainly will herald a new frostiness in already chilly ties.
"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 in a statement, citing deep differences over missile defense, arms control, trade, global security and human rights. "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," it added.
The Kremlin responded quickly, voicing its own disappointment with the canceled summit and blaming it on Washington's inability to develop relations with Moscow on an "equal basis." Putin's foreign affairs adviser, Yuri Ushakov, added that the decision was "clearly linked" to the Snowden case, a situation that he said wasn't of Russia's making.
While Snowden might have been the immediate catalyst for canceling the summit, the seeds of renewed U.S.-Russia discord were planted more than a year ago when Putin re-took the Russian presidency. On returning to power, he adopted a deeply nationalistic and more openly confrontational stance toward the United States than had his chosen successor Dmitry Medvedev, whose 2008-2012 tenure roughly overlapped Obama's first term in the White House.
Where Medvedev abstained in a U.N. Security Council vote that authorized NATO airstrikes in Libya, Putin has refused repeated entreaties from Washington to allow the world body to impose even minimal sanctions on President Bashar Assad's Syria. At the same time, Putin's government has continued to supply its ally Assad with weapons. And it has not delivered on pledges to coax Assad into sending representatives to talks with the opposition aimed at finding a political solution to the Syrian conflict.
Obama sought to cultivate Medvedev as a friend of the United States, making significant changes to Bush administration plans for European missile defense to try to ease Russian concerns about that project, signing a new arms control treaty and famously sending then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to meet Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in Geneva where she proclaimed a "reset" in U.S.-Russia relations.