Clifford Kupchan is the Director, Europe and Eurasia, Eurasia Group. Member of the Valdai Discussion Club
The US-Russian relationship is quite cool right now, and cancellation of the summit will add more tension to bilateral ties. However return to a Cold-War like relationship is very unlikely. Both sides have declared their intent to keep current disputes from causing a deep and lasting rift in relations, and this episode will likely be viewed as a low point from which the relationship rebounded.
It is very unlikely that the US administration will prioritize Russia less than in the past. In my view, this administration correctly assesses that many key US interests lead through and are shared by Moscow. These interests include finding a solution to the Iran nuclear crisis, stopping the violence in Syria, easing tensions in Afghanistan, and maintaining stability in global energy markets. These common interests will very likely bound the degree of discord that current events have brought to the current relationship.
In my view, the decision to postpone the summit was not a reflection of US domestic politics. The Obama Administration decided that in light of the Snowden affair and disagreements on a range of other issues, the time was not right for a productive summit. Both Democrats and Republicans were calling for cancellation or postponement of the meeting, so the evidence strongly suggests the decision was not political. Also, President Obama is a second-term president, leaving him less vulnerable to political pressures.
The Snowden episode was the main issue, but hardly the only one. Russia’s decision to grant safe harbor to Snowden deeply frustrated the administration and many Americans. Snowden is viewed in the US as someone who has gravely betrayed his country, and any country that protects him will incur resentment.
As long as Snowden remains in Russia, there will be a shadow over Russian-US relations. Some Russian officials have suggested he may not remain in Russia for a long time; his departure would improve the relationship – especially if Snowden eventually ends up in US custody. This affair has been discussed at very high levels, and common views were not reached. A cancelled meeting is preferable to a failed meeting, to one where frustration between the presidents is evident.
But there are many other stumbling blocks in current US-Russia relations. The relationship has been trending downward for the past year, at least. The sides had very different views of the Magnitsky issue, and both nations’ legislatures passed laws related to this issue that offended the other country. The sides have very different positions toward the civil war in Syria. The US and Russia have views on ballistic missile defense that differ, and views on further reductions in nuclear weapons are also divergent. US-Russian economic relations remain at a very low level, which frustrates Russian leaders. Finally, many Americans are quite concerned about trends in political freedom in Russia.
However, I do believe that continued meetings and dialogue are essential, if not at the presidential level. Iran is an issue that could bring the sides closer. They share a common interest in finding a diplomatic solution of the nuclear crisis, and the US and Russia have worked well together on this issue. The election of Hassan Rouhani as president of Iran will probably open up new opportunities for diplomacy. If the US and Russia work closely on this issue in coming months, it will help improve relations.