WASHINGTON | A highly anticipated fall summit between President Barack Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin could become a casualty of Moscow’s defiant decision to grant temporary asylum to National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden, the White House signaled Thursday after weeks of pressuring and pleading for his return to face prosecution.
Russia’s decision “is not a positive development,” White House spokesman Jay Carney said.
“We are extremely disappointed that the Russian government would take this step despite our very clear and lawful requests in public and in private to have Mr. Snowden expelled to the United States to face the charges against him,” Carney said.
Obama is scheduled to go to Russia in September for the Group of 20 economic summit in St. Petersburg and also stop in Moscow for one-on-one talks Putin. The White House alternately has demanded that Russia return Snowden while also saying it doesn’t want his case to negatively impact relations with Moscow.
Asked whether Obama would still travel to Moscow, Carney said pointedly, “We are evaluating the utility of a summit.”
There was a strong reaction from some lawmakers.
“Russia’s action today is a disgrace and a deliberate effort to embarrass the United States. It is a slap in the face of all Americans,” Republican Sens. John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina said in a joint statement. “Now is the time to fundamentally rethink our relationship with Putin’s Russia.”
The senators suggested expanding U.S. sanctions against Russians accused of human rights violations, completing U.S. missile defense programs based in Europe, and moving quickly on another round of NATO expansion to include the Republic of Georgia.
Long before Thursday’s decision, some lawmakers even suggested a U.S. boycott of the Winter Olympics taking place next year in Sochi, Russia, or moving the Group of 20 international summit out of Russia altogether.
Carney declined to speculate about what steps, if any, the U.S. might take in response. He noted the complicated and wide-ranging relationship between the two countries and suggested the U.S. also is reluctant to let Snowden’s status become the source of further deterioration.
The U.S. and Russia already disagree on a host of issues, including the civil war in Syria, where Moscow is one of Syrian President Bashar Assad’s key supporters and the U.S. is backing anti-Assad rebel forces.
“There is no question that there are a range of issues, setting aside the disposition of Mr. Snowden, on which we are currently in disagreement with Russia,” Carney said.
Snowden left the transit zone of a Moscow airport and officially entered Russia after authorities granted him asylum for one year, his lawyer said Thursday. Snowden had been camped out at the airport for more than a month since he arrived there from Hong Kong on June 23.
The U.S. had demanded that Russia send him home to face prosecution for revealing details about secret U.S. electronic surveillance programs. But the two countries have no extradition treaty and Putin dismissed the requests, despite saying he didn’t want the Snowden issue to hamper relations with the U.S.
Carney said the U.S. was not told of the decision ahead of time.
Andrew Weiss, a former director of Russian affairs in the Clinton administration, said the Russians had sought an Obama visit so they could portray Putin as an important player on the world stage. But he said it now seems “all but inevitable” that Obama will have to cancel at least part of his trip to Russia in response.
“So something they really wanted, which was the president of the United States there in Moscow, now seems to be in jeopardy” because of Snowden, Weiss said.
Jeffery Mankoff, deputy director and fellow with the Russia and Eurasia program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said the meeting should go on because of the other important issues on the table.
“All of these things are kind of sitting there in the bilateral relationship and really need a top-level push to get anywhere,” Mankoff said. “Having that kind of meeting would be conducive to getting some of that agenda moving.”
Associated Press writer Sagar Meghani contributed to this report.
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