The Obama administration will continue to pressure Russia to send back fugitive National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden, despite deteriorating relations between the two nations that resulted in President Obama canceling a summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
"This is not the focus of our engagement with Russia, but it is not something we are dropping, by any means," White House press secretary Jay Carney said Thursday. "It certainly remains our position that Mr. Snowden should be returned to the United States."
Russia announced last week it was granting Mr. Snowden asylum for one year despite a personal plea from Mr. Obama to Mr. Putin to return him to the U.S. to face criminal charges of revealing classified surveillance programs. In turn, the White House announced Wednesday that Mr. Obama was canceling a planned bilateral summit with Mr. Putin in Moscow in early September.
The developments have raised criticism that Mr. Obama's foreign policy "reset" with Russia has collapsed and that Mr. Obama was naive to believe Mr. Putin is open to cooperation on various issues.
Former U.N. Ambassador John R. Bolton said it was time for the U.S. to take off the kid gloves with Mr. Putin, and said canceling the summit amounted to "Obama fluttering his eyelids."
"It's purely symbolic," Mr. Bolton told Fox News' Greta Van Susteren. "I think in order to focus Putin's thinking, we need to do things that cause him pain as well. And while I know that not having a chance to have a bilateral meeting with his buddy Barack Obama will cause Putin to lose sleep, it's not damaging Russian interests."
Mr. Carney said the Snowden case was "a factor, but he was far from the only factor" in the decision to cancel the meeting. The White House also cited a lack of progress on a range of issues, including Russia's support of Bashar Assad's regime in Syria and negotiations of missile-defense systems in Europe.
He said Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Secretary of State John F. Kerry will meet with their Russian counterparts on Friday in Washington.
"We're going to continue to engage with the Russians," Mr. Carney said. "It's an important relationship. But it just wasn't the right time for a summit."
The White House spokesman agreed with the assessment that relations between the Obama administration and Russia were somewhat better during the tenure of former Russian President Dmitry Medvedev. During a summit in South Korea in March 2012, Mr. Obama was caught in a "hot mic" moment asking Mr. Medvedev to tell Mr. Putin that he would have more "flexibility" to negotiate over missile defense after Mr. Obama won a second term.
But Mr. Carney said relations between the U.S. and Russia have always posed serious challenges.
"I'm not minimizing the challenges we face or the disagreements we have with Russia, but I think that it's important not to imagine that everything was harmonious in our relationship with Russia a few years ago and is now lacking harmony of any kind at this time," he said. "There's no question that we have a number of disagreements with Russia. We certainly had some under President Medvedev, including over missile defense."
Mr. Carney deflected reporters' questions about a possible U.S. boycott of the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia. Gay-rights groups are calling for a boycott because of a new Russian law that bans "homosexual propaganda." Mr. Carney said the president "absolutely opposes" laws that discriminate against individuals for any reason.
During a conversation Tuesday night with "Tonight Show" host Jay Leno, Mr. Obama said, "I have no patience for countries that try to treat gay or lesbians or transgender persons in ways that intimidate them or are harmful to them."
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