When the Obama administration discusses matters of sensitive diplomacy, it isn’t always a model of clarity.
But this week reporters have struggled to get a direct answer to what would seem to be a simple question: Is President Barack Obama still planning to attend a summit meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow in early September?
What’s become increasingly evident is the planned summit meeting is now entangled in the delicate negotiations between Messrs. Obama and Putin over the fate of former NSA contractor Edward Snowden.
Let’s back up to mid-June.
Mr. Obama was in Northern Ireland, meeting with various counterparts, including Mr. Putin. The two men held a private session, at which they agreed to take part in a summit meeting in Moscow prior to a separate Group of Twenty meeting in St. Petersburg, Russia.
Ben Rhodes, deputy national security adviser for strategic communications, said in a press briefing at the time: “So we’ll be going to Moscow before we go to St. Petersburg for the G-20.”
But the following week, Mr. Snowden left his hiding place in Hong Kong and showed up in Russia. Since then, the Obama administration has been imploring Russia to return Mr. Snowden to the U.S. to face criminal charges. So far, Mr. Putin hasn’t complied.
Now the summit may be a casualty of the Snowden negotiations.
In his daily briefings this week, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney has been giving careful answers to questions about whether the Obama-Putin summit is still on.
On Wednesday, he was asked if Russia’s handling of the Snowden case has any bearing on Mr. Obama’s decision to attend the scheduled summit meeting with Mr. Putin.
Mr. Carney replied that “the president intends to travel to Russia for the G20 Summit. And I have no further announcements to make beyond what we’ve said in the past about the President’s travel to Russia in the fall.”
Can he definitively say whether Mr. Obama will go to Moscow?
“I can say that the president intends to travel to Russia for the G20 Summit. I don’t have anything to add to what we’ve said in the past about that trip,” Mr. Carney said.
Later in the briefing, another reporter asked him to clarify that answer.
Mr. Carney replied that he “might have been deliberately vague, so I’m not sure I can clarify.”
He went on to say that “I have no further announcements on our travel to Russia. The President intends to go to Russia in September.”
“But you won’t say Moscow?” the reporter said.
“I just have nothing else to say on it,” Mr. Carney said.
All this seems to leave open the possibility that Mr. Obama might call off the summit. In any case, the White House statements may be a signal to Moscow that Mr. Snowden’s status and the summit’s future are now linked, one foreign policy expert said.
“I do think it is a signal,” said Heather Conley, director of the Europe Program at the Center for Strategic & International Studies.
The White House, she said, is “having to rethink [the Moscow summit] right now. This is going to be a very fluid situation.” – WSJ