Fisher asks, “How is it that U.S. and Soviet leaders went ahead with decades of summits despite disagreements so severe they implied a threat of World War III, while today a summit falls apart over a single NSA contractor and the slow progress in some minor security and trade cooperation measures?”:
It may actually be the case that the reset was doomed not by high tensions but by low stakes. Obama and Xi feel compelled to force a smile for the camera at Sunnylands in large part because the U.S. and China have arguably the most important bilateral relationship in the world; neither can afford to let it fall apart. The same was true of Washington-Moscow summits during the Cold War, when leaders who might despise one another would meet not despite but because of the very real threat of mutual nuclear annihilation.
Today, though, the United States and Russia have found themselves in a not-so-sweet spot in which they have enough overlapping areas of interest to spark bitter disagreements, but not enough that either wants to commit the necessary resources to get along. It’s just not the priority.
Ioffe provides the view from Moscow:
[F]or 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.”
Kimberly Marten believes that “Obama did exactly the right thing”:
Obama had made it clear that the Snowden case was his line in the sand, and Putin crossed that line unnecessarily. Putin could have chosen instead to give the Snowden request the 3-month administrative consideration period that the Kremlin originally mentioned when he originally made his asylum application, rather than granting Snowden the yearlong temporary asylum straight off. It looks like the meeting in Washington tomorrow between Secretary of State Kerry and Secretary of Defense Hagel and their Russian counterparts is still on, and that is the truly substantive part of the diplomatic interaction anyway. Assuming that the Russian side doesn’t cancel their participation in that meeting, then there has been no real change in the quality of the relationship.
Larison sees the issue differently:
As rebukes go, Obama’s cancellation of the bilateral summit meeting with Putin isn’t that strong, but it could and probably will be used as a pretext for greater antagonism on some issue. It goes without saying that the decision to cancel will have no positive effect on Moscow’s internal conduct, its asylum decision on Snowden, or any other outstanding disagreement between Washington and Moscow, but then it isn’t intended to have that effect. This is a decision primarily meant to placate American critics of Russia, who predictably won’t be satisfied with this gesture, and to save Obama the trouble of a meeting that would likely have been fruitless anyway.
The US constantly refuses requests to extradite – even where (unlike Russia) they have an extradition treaty with the requesting country and even where (unlike Snowden) the request involves actual, serious crimes, such as genocide, kidnapping, and terrorism. Maybe those facts should be part of whatever media commentary there is on Putin’s refusal to extradite Snowden and Obama’s rather extreme reaction to it. … I think it’s becoming increasingly clear here who the rogue and lawless nation is in this case.
Kaplan, on the other hand, supports the cancellation:
Given the random pointlessness of the last Obama-Putin session and the risk that a high-profile reprise might aggravate the growing sense of despondence, it’s best, at this point, to turn the task of recasting relations to the diplomats.