Moscow’s grant of asylum Thursday to National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden put in doubt a meeting between Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and his Russian counterpart, and had wider implications for the U.S. military on policy in Syria, Afghanistan and Iran.
At the White House, Press Secretary Jay Carney said the administration’s anger over the Snowden case could cancel a scheduled summit early next month in Moscow between President Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin ahead of a G-20 economic meeting in St. Petersburg.
“We are evaluating the utility of a summit in light of this,” Carney said. “We are extremely disappointed” that Snowden was allowed to leave the Moscow airport and live in Russia for at least a year under a grant of political asylum, he said.
Kremlin aide Yuri Ushakov told a reporter in Moscow on Thursday that Snowden’s asylum “is not important enough to affect political relations” between the U.S. and Russia, but the U.S. initially appeared to be taking a different view.
Hagel and Secretary of State John Kerry had been scheduled to meet in Washington next week with Russia’s Defense Minister Sergey Shoygu and Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. However, that meeting was now problematic.
“I don’t have any announcements to make at this point” on whether the meeting will go forward, said George Little, the chief Pentagon spokesman.
The so-called “two-plus-two” meeting of the U.S. and Russian defense and foreign policy chiefs is supposed to lay the groundwork for the Obama-Putin summit in Moscow at which Obama hoped to press the Russians on missile defense in Europe and nuclear arms reductions, said Steven Pifer, director of the Arms Control Initiative at the Brookings Institution.
“That would be unfortunate if it’s canceled,” Pifer said of the Hagel and Kerry meetings with their Russian counterparts. “It would be a chance to get a sense of where the Russians are going” ahead of the proposed Obama-Putin summit in Moscow. Then the White House would have to decide whether “it was worth the political pain at home” that would be paid to meet with Putin while Snowden was free in Russia, Pifer said.
Kerry had also been pressing Moscow to drop its support of the Syrian regime of President Bashar al-Assad while seeking Russian backing for a Geneva peace conference involving representatives of Assad and the Syrian opposition.
In response to Snowden’s release, the U.S. may now deliver quickly on its long-promised shipment of arms and ammunition to the Syrian rebels. “I’m not in a position to comment now on the mechanics” of the arms deliveries, Little said.
U.S. and Russian interests were also delicately intertwined on Afghanistan. At the White House, Carney noted that Russia’s assistance was invaluable on the “transit of troops and materiel to Afghanistan” along the so-called “northern route” through several former Soviet republics. The U.S. was also depending on the northern route to get troops and equipment out as combat forces are withdrawn.
“The Russians have to be careful of playing too many games in Afghanistan,” Pifer said. If the allied effort in Afghanistan fails, “it’s a much bigger problem for them than it is for the U.S.,” he said, referring to the potential for unrest in the former Soviet republics on Russia’s border.
The fallout from the Snowden case could also spill over into the efforts to press Iran on reining in its nuclear arms programs.
With U.S. support, Putin had been planning to go to Tehran next month to meet newly elected President Hassan Rouhani.
“Putin tried to intercede with the Iranians in 2006/2007, with the support of the Bush Administration, to convince the Iranians to walk back their nuclear program, though to no avail,” Andrew Kuchins, director of the Russia and Eurasia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said in a commentary Thursday.
“Obama should certainly want a personal read-out from Putin on what he learned in Tehran,” Kuchins said. “Maybe this is an issue on which the two presidents can begin to forge a more trusting personal relationship because of shared interests in preventing Iran from going past the nuclear threshold.”