In the end, it's not Edward Snowden that matters in the latest US-Russia spat.
Sometimes a relatively trivial course of events, coupled with growing personal irritation between two leaders, can shift perceptions and policies onto a new track. The Obama administration has been determined to brush over the failure of its Medvedev era 'reset' with Russia to promote a more widely based and productive relationship with Moscow under President Putin. In doing so it has turned as dim an eye as it could to the realities of Russia's regression since Putin's return and the Kremlin's anti-Western propaganda in support of that regression. Washington has secured nothing in return. Moscow's convoluted and inconsistent exploitation of Snowden, the former National Security Agency contractor responsible for leaking US intelligence information, seems finally to have driven this point home.
Washington's decision to cancel bilateral talks and President Obama's remark that he was 'disappointed' with Russia's grant of temporary asylum to Snowden, reflects the underlying challenges Obama faces in dealing with Moscow. His subsequent criticisms of the Kremlin's human rights record, struck new – and realistic – notes. The US administration may of course hope that 'progress in our bilateral agenda' including missile defence, arms control and human rights will still be possible, but the Kremlin record so far suggests otherwise. Obama's comment to NBC on 6 August that 'there have been times where they slip back into cold war thinking and a cold war mentality' was to the point.
'Reset' had its achievements including the way it allowed both Russia and the United States, along with other Western countries, to step back from the impasse of 2008. But it also had the flaw in that it encouraged the Russian delusion that Moscow is still a power with a particular and somehow equivalent status to Washington. It is politically convenient in dealing with its internal affairs for the Kremlin to treat the United States as though it had a special and hostile concern with Russia, and there are many Russians who appear genuinely to believe that is so. The stream of high-level accusations against the West has been constant since the shock of the protest movement took to the streets in late 2011. The passage of the Magnitsky Act caused resentment and fear among those directly affected, along with others who worried in case they might lose their actual or potential Western bolt holes.
The idea that Moscow and Washington have a necessarily central relationship is a Cold War relic, and one better discarded. The comment by senior Kremlin official Yury Ushakov that the Snowden problem 'testifies to the United States' reluctance to build an equal relationship with Russia' was indicative of that Cold War inheritance. Russians understand an equal relationship as a privileged one accepting their own view of Russia's rights and standing in the world. The Director of the Carnegie Moscow Centre, the widely respected Dmitri Trenin, was also reflecting a wide spread Russian belief in the central importance of the US/Russia relationship when he compared Obama's decision to cancel talks with Khrushchev's cancellation of a summit with Eisenhower after the downing of a U2 flight and added: 'The Kremlin will…conclude that not much can be done with the present Administration.'
The reality is that Moscow has not tried to do anything much with Washington, beyond trying to force its view of its rights, and to object to criticism of its domestic policies. Putin was probably not expecting that a one-on-one meeting with Obama next month would be useful to him, except insofar as it might have been portrayed as a 'Summit'. He might perhaps have supposed that Obama would come despite Russian prevarication over Snowden and be mildly disappointed that he now will not. But by way of compensation he can treat the matter as proof of his ability to stand up to US bullying and even with wonderful hypocrisy his defence of human rights. The Americans presumably understood too that a meeting between the two presidents was unlikely to make practical progress. To that extent, a postponement might suit both sides for now.
There will still be practical matters to be dealt with between Moscow and Washington, and it may in the longer run be easier to address them at a lower level without an overarching agenda with its Cold War ancestry. It is however certain that how Russia's domestic affairs unfold will be a driving force in the matter. It is good that President Obama has acknowledged that truth this week. Russia cannot be the 'Great Power' that it claims to be without a system of just and effective rule.