On Wednesday evening, when U.S. President Obama cancelled his upcoming visit to Moscow, the Russian reaction was perhaps most clear in the way that Vesti, the state’s main propaganda TV channel, conveyed it on the channel’s website. Buried about half way down on the page, underneath a story about Russian tourists in Turkey, Vesti announced: “The invitation for Obama stands.” Beside that was the somewhat diversionary headline: “Barack Obama will travel to St. Petersburg for the G20 summit.” The actual news — that Obama had decided not to meet with his Russian counterpart before, after or during the G20 summit in St. Petersburg next month — was clearly not something the official spin doctors wanted to advertise.
After a year spent honing their anti-American rhetoric — on issues ranging from the adoption of Russian children to missile defense in Europe and the civil war in Syria — the Kremlin message makers were suddenly eager to claim that President Vladimir Putin didn’t really mean for things to go this far. “Sure, Putin uses this rhetoric, but it’s not so much anti-American as anti-Euro-Atlantic,” says Evgeny Minchenko, a Kremlin-connected political strategist. “And keep in mind that he has tried to stop short of a head-on collision.”
But a head-on collision is what Putin got, and he has very little to show for it. The assumed cause of the cancelled visit was Russia’s decision last week to grant asylum to Edward Snowden, who is wanted in the U.S. for leaking the secrets of American intelligence agencies. “It’s clear that this decision is linked to the situation we did not cause, [the one] reguarding the former American special services employee Snowden,” said Putin’s top foreign policy adviser, Yuri Ushakov, adding that the Kremlin was “disappointed” by Obama’s decision. “The U.S. is still not ready to build relations on an equitable basis,” Ushakov told Russian news agencies.
Putin has not yet replied to Obama’s snub, but most experts found it hard to see how he could spin it in his favor. “He can again say that he did not bow to American demands, that he did not obey,” says Alexander Konovalov, an expert on U.S.-Russia affairs at the Moscow Institute of International Relations. But that message has grown hackneyed over the past year of bickering between Moscow and Washington, so it will not earn him many points with the domestic electorate, adds Konovalov.
The only ones who seemed to be celebrating Obama’s snub on Wednesday were some of Putin’s harshest critics. “Putin thrives on these joint appearances to show his cronies that he’s an equal on the global stage despite his lack of credentials, and that he can protect their interests abroad,” says Garry Kasparov, the former world chess champion who helped lead the anti-Putin protests last year. “I’m glad Obama is finally showing some spine with regard to Putin,” he says. “This cancellation is a welcome start.”
But other opposition leaders were less sanguine. Leonid Gozman, a liberal politician, said Obama could have done more for the opposition’s cause by showing up in Moscow as planned. “He could at least have met with activists, spoken at a university, explained his message in an interview to the Russian press,” Gozman says. “Back in 1972, our country was like a concentration camp without fences, and Nixon still came to meet Brezhnev. They ended up talking through their problems. Everybody won.” But those were the days of detente between Moscow and Washington — a word that hardly applies to the current state of affairs.