By Geoff Dyer in Washington and Courtney Weaver in Moscow
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President Barack Obama has cancelled talks with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin that were due to be held next month, highlighting the deteriorating relations between the two world powers following the saga of NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden.
The White House said in a statement on Wednesday that Mr Obama would attend the G20 summit in St Petersburg on September 5 and 6 but would skip a bilateral summit with Mr Putin in Moscow, in part because of “Russia’s disappointing decision” last week to award Mr Snowden temporary asylum.
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The statement also listed a series of other areas where it said there had not been “enough recent progress in our bilateral agenda”, including missile defence, arms control and human rights.
In an appearance on NBC’s Tonight show on Tuesday, Mr Obama said he was “disappointed” that Russia had granted temporary asylum to Mr Snowden and said it reflected the “underlying challenges” he faces in dealing with Moscow.
“There have been times where they slip back into cold war thinking and a cold war mentality,” the president said.
Mr Obama also criticised a new Russian law cracking down on gay rights activism, saying he has “no patience for countries that try to treat gays and lesbians and transgendered persons in ways that intimidate them or are harmful to them”.
Russia has said it will enforce the law when it hosts the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi. Asked whether the law would affect the games, Mr Obama said he believes Mr Putin and Russia have “a big stake in making sure the Olympics work”.
He said: “I think they understand that for most of the countries that participate in the Olympics, we wouldn’t tolerate gays and lesbians being treated differently.”
The Obama administration’s decision is being presented as a Snowden-related snub to Mr Putin, who might have derived political gain from hosting an American presidential visit.
However, the furore over Mr Snowden is also a potentially serious blow to the diplomatic plans of the Obama administration, which only a few months ago highlighted co-operation with Russia as a central element in its approach towards Syria and Iran.
Mr Obama has also made one of his personal second-term goals the negotiation of a new round of nuclear weapon reductions, an objective that seems even more distant as a result of the spat with the Russian leader.
Russia will not lose anything because of this. In this situation, America needs Russia more than Russia needs America
– Mikhail Yemelyanov, an MP and deputy head of A Just Russia party
Dmitri Trenin, director of the Carnegie Moscow Center, said that the only parallel decision he could think of was when then Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev called off a summit with President Dwight Eisenhower in 1960 following an incident with a US spy plane.
“The decision will leave its mark on US-Russian relations. The atmosphere will grow thicker, and co-operation even harder to obtain,” he said. “The Kremlin will probably interpret the move by the White House as a sign of Obama’s political vulnerability and conclude that not much can be done with the present administration.”
The White House used the threat of cancelling the meeting with Mr Putin to attempt to pressure Russia into handing over Mr Snowden when he was trapped in transit at a Moscow airport for nearly six weeks.
Following Moscow’s decision to award the 30-year-old former NSA contractor temporary asylum for one year, the postponement of the summit became inevitable.
With resentment towards Russia increasing in US Congress, some US lawmakers have called on the administration to take much tougher steps, including boycotting the forthcoming Winter Olympics in Sochi.
Yury Ushakov, a top Kremlin foreign policy aide, said the Kremlin was “disappointed” by Mr Obama’s decision, which he blamed solely on Moscow’s unwillingness to extradite Mr Snowden.
“This problem testifies to the United States’ reluctance to build an equal relationship [with Russia],” he said. Mr Ushakov added that should Mr Obama decide to change his mind, Mr Ushakov said, the invitation to visit Moscow would still be open. “The president of the United States was and remains invited to make a visit to Russia,” he said.
Mikhail Yemelyanov, an MP and deputy head for A Just Russia party, told Russian news wire Interfax: “Russia will not lose anything because of this. In this situation, America needs Russia more than Russia needs America.”
He added: “America better think about Russia not coming into a closer alliance with China.”
Instead of the September presidential meeting in Moscow, the US secretaries of state and defence, John Kerry and Chuck Hagel, are due to meet their Russian counterparts in Washington on Friday.