The cancellation of a meeting between the two leaders is the most significant sign that the president’s four years of conciliatory “reset” policies toward Russia are now on hold.
To drive home U.S. displeasure with Moscow’s recent anti-U.S. policies, including the granting of asylum to National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden, Mr. Obama will meet instead with Russian rights activists, according to a White House official.
The official told Inside the Ring that the president will meet with “civil-society representatives,” but provided no details.
Mr. Obama will meet with Chinese President Xi Jinping, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and French President Francois Hollande in St. Petersburg.
“While there is currently no plan for a formal bilateral [meeting] with President Putin of Russia, we would expect the two presidents to have an opportunity to speak on the margins of the various meetings of the G-20,” the official said. “The president also looks forward to meeting with civil-society representatives in St. Petersburg.”
The Russian online business news outlet Kommersant, which first reported the plan for Mr. Obama to meet the activists, quoted a Russian official as calling the president’s meeting “strange.”
Groups that have been invited to send representatives to meet with Mr. Obama include two gay activist groups, Vykhod (“Coming Out”) and the Russian LGBT Network. Other activists were invited from Agora, For Human Rights, the Moscow Helsinki Group and Golos, according to Kommersant. The news outlet said almost all confirmed the invitations and said they would meet with the president.
Russian presidential spokesman Dmitri Peskov was quoted as saying the Kremlin was unaware of the planned meeting with activists. “As U.S. president in this instance, Barack Obama is free to do whatever he wants,” he said.
However, a Russian government official criticized the planned meetings. “Either you meet with the authorities and those who criticize them, or you meet with nobody,” the official told Kommersant.
Russia’s government has cracked down hard on dissent in recent years, imprisoning political opponents and accusing nongovernmental organizations of engaging in espionage.
At a news conference Wednesday in Sweden, Mr. Obama defended the reset policy as a success for arms control and Russian support for supplying troops in Afghanistan.
“Now, there’s no doubt that, as I indicated a while back, we’ve kind of hit a wall in terms of additional progress,” he said. “But I have not written off the idea that the United States and Russia are going to continue to have common interests even as we have some very profound differences on some other issues,” including Syria.
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