The asylum granted to National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden is hardly the first issue to come between President Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin. In October, Putin let it be known that he would not renew America’s Cooperative Threat Reduction program, which has safeguarded nuclear stockpiles in former Soviet countries since the 1990s. Then, in September, Putin threw the US Agency for International Development out of Russia. In December, Putin signed a law barring Americans from adopting Russian babies. On top of all that, Moscow has cracked down on its own activists, continued to supply Syrian President Bashar Assad with weapons, and resisted international efforts to sanction Iran. It’s no wonder that a meeting between Obama and Putin in Northern Ireland in June was described as a “frowning contest.”
Now that Putin has granted asylum to Snowden, Obama is finally pushing back by canceling a planned summit next month with his Russian counterpart. A White House statement explained what many foreign policy experts have considered obvious for quite some time: There simply isn’t enough common ground to make the meeting more than a photo op. For a president who made the “reset” of relations with Russia a signature foreign policy priority during his first term, the canceled summit is a public acknowledgment of failure. Still, Obama knows he can’t torpedo the whole relationship. The United States still needs Russia to help us transport food and ammunition to US troops in Afghanistan. And we still need cooperation on counterterrorism, as the Boston Marathon bombings showed.
But that doesn’t mean Obama must remain silent about Russia’s Cold War revival. Obama has countless tools at his disposal to quietly make Putin’s life more difficult. For instance, Russia needed US help to get into the World Trade Organization in 2011. Now, Russia wants to join the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. The United States should be clear that cooperation is a two-way street, and that Putin, who is hosting the Winter Olympics next year, can’t expect much of it without giving a lot more.