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US-Russian relationship reaches new low

US President Obama has cancelled talks with his Russian counterpart Putin. Observers warn of a new Cold War between the two countries - Edward Snowden is by no means the only area where the two sides are at loggerheads.

The irritation runs deep in the White House. It runs so deep that President Barack Obama is willing to risk yet another escalation in the ties with Moscow by cancelling a meeting with Russia's Vladimir Putin scheduled for early September.

The relationship between the two countries had already been tense. Is Obama's decision politically wise? Or is it a president who seems strangely helpless, letting out his personal frustration and giving in to domestic pressure?

Obama's justification for his decision is of a rare frankness. Who would disagree with him when he speaks about the lack of progress in almost all areas with Russia. It ranges from disarmament to economic and trade relations, to global questions of security and human rights.

The decision by the Russian authorities to grant asylum to Edward Snowden was mentioned only as the last point by Obama. It seems to have been the last trigger for his decision to cancel the meeting with Putin.

Getting the Russian mentality right

"It's a mistake. It's especially a mistake to announce that the meeting will be cancelled before the so called two plus two meeting which is supposed to take place on Friday between the secretaries of state and defense of the two countries," Matthew Rojanski of the Washington Kennan Institute told Deutsche Welle.

Barack Obama (Photo: JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images)

Obama has to answer to increasing domestic pressure to take a tough line with Russia

He warns that Obama's decision will mean that Friday's talks will hardly have a chance at being a productive meeting with any positive results. The only "good" news is Obama did not also cancel his attendance of the G20 summit in Saint Petersburg as some observers had feared he would.

According to Rojanski, Obama's decision not to meet with Putin is based on an entirely wrong take on the Russian mentality. "The reason is that with Russia it does not work to punish them and to expect them to realize 'Oh, we've made a mistake and we're now going to behave better.' That's not the dynamic of the relationship. This relationship benefits from engagement. This very pointed neglect of sort of adding insult to injury is very likely to be destructive in the relationship."

No equal partner?

Russia's reaction seems to prove Rojanski right. Putin's foreign policy advisor Yuri Ushakov expressed his regret and told the Reuters news agency that the Kremlin had the impression of not being respected as an "equal partner."

On the other side, the tone of the Americans is getting more aggressive. Senator Chuck Schumer, member of Obama's Democrats, on Wednesday told CNN that Putin was trying to "make Russia a big power again," and that it made no sense to pay respect to that in bilateral talks.

Already one day prior to cancelling the meeting with Putin, Obama accused Moscow in a TV interview of falling back into the mindset and mentality of the Cold War.

Domestic pressure

Edward Snowden

Russia's decision to grant asylum to Snowden was the last straw for many in the US

Obama was not all that free in his decision: After Snowden got asylum in Russia, several Senators called for a boycott of the Olympic Games in Sochi and to have the G20 summit moved from Saint Petersburg to a different country. US media from New York Times to the Wall Street Journal have repeatedly criticized Obama for being too lenient with Russia.

There's plenty of indignation and disappointment about Russia in Washington. The Snowden case has driven the frustration of both president and Congress to a new high. There had already been disappointment about Russia's position on Syria and Iran and the problem with Snowden is symptomatic for a difficult relationship that Obama initially had wanted to reset back in 2009 when he got voted into office.

Mutual dependency

Even though the return has so been somewhat thin, Rojanski advises against any radical reactions. "The fact that Russia is not cooperating as much as the White House would like is not the same as saying that there's no hope of cooperation and that Russia is our adversary. These are extreme conclusions from a time of difficulty in what has always been a difficult relationship."

Washington, most likely, is already preparing for the post-Putin period. Until then though, the US will have to deal with the situation as it is. Even if Russia's importance as a partner for the US is declining, Washington can not afford to ignore Moscow, Rojanski points out.

"Russia is always going to be at the table and it will increasingly play the role of a counterweight to the United States," Rojanksi says. "An that's simply because the Russians are seeing themselves in that position by their own actions and now increasingly by US actions. It doesn't help when the US fights fire with fire."

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