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5th Mar 2024

Obama to visit Sweden after cancelling Putin meeting

  • Putin (r) has angered the US over his handling of Edward Snowden, but relations have been poor for some time (Photo: ec.europa.eu)

US President Barack Obama has cancelled a bilateral meeting next month with Russian leader Vladimir Putin following Moscow's decision to grant temporary asylum to fugitive intelligence analyst Edward Snowden.

"We have reached the conclusion that there is not enough recent progress in our bilateral agenda with Russia to hold a US-Russia summit in early September," Washington said in a short statement on Wednesday (7 August).

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Moscow's "disappointing decision" on Snowden was "also a factor," it added, with US authorities keen for Snowden to face charges at home for leaking security documents.

The Snowden affair was the catalyst for the decision. But relations between the two sides have been fraught for some time, despite the Obama administration's 2009 announcement - its first major foreign policy move - that it wanted to "reset" relations with Russia.

One of the main points of contention has been over Syria. Moscow has consistently backed President Bashar al-Assad in Syria’s civil war, playing what Western nations see as an obstructive role in the United Nations.

Meanwhile, Russia last year agreed a law that would ban adoption of Russian children by US couples, a move seen as retaliation for the US' Magnitsky law, which targets Russian officials involved in the death of whistleblower Sergei Magnitsky.

There have also been tensions over Russia's anti-gay propaganda law, as well as its crackdown on civil society, which has seen US aid and pro-democracy organisations come under fire.

After he cancelled the Putin meeting, Obama appeared on the Jay Leno TV talk-show, giving him an informal platform to justify his decision and take a few swipes at Putin.

He said he had "no patience" for countries that treat sexual minorities in ways that "intimidate" or are "harmful" to them.

In an exchange with the host about how stern Putin looked during a press conference, Obama suggested it was because "he’s not accustomed to having press conferences where you’ve got a bunch of reporters yelling questions at you."

He also said that "there have been times" when Russian officials "slip back into Cold War thinking and a Cold War mentality."

While he dodged a question about whether he would meet Putin during the G20 conference in St. Petersburg on 5-6 September, which he is still planning to attend, Obama did not completely denigrate his Russian counterpart.

"They [the Russians] still help us on supplying our troops in Afghanistan; they’re still helping us on counterterrorism work; they were helpful after the Boston bombing in that investigation. And so there’s still a lot of business that we can do with them," he said.

Sweden in the spotlight

The cancelled meeting has put Sweden in the spotlight.

Obama will travel to Stockholm instead, making it the first ever "truly bilateral" meeting between US and Swedish leaders, according to Swedish foreign minister Carl Bildt.

A US press statement announcing the visit on 4-5 September praised Sweden for "advancing clean technologies, and promoting environmental sustainability."

Sweden also represents a link to another fugitive that the US is interested in - Julian Assange.

The Wikileaks founder has been cooped up in the Ecuadorean embassy in London to avoid being extradited to Sweden for alleged sex crimes. He has repeatedly said he fears being handed over to US authorities by Stockholm.

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