WASHINGTON – The crisis in Syria, arms control and missile defense headline what are expected to be chilly talks between top U.S. and Russian foreign and defense chiefs, a sit-down tainted by the case of National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden, which led President Barack Obama to cancel his upcoming meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Russia's decision last week to grant temporary asylum to Snowden put a damper on U.S.-Russia relations, which were already on a slide. Then, on Wednesday, Obama canceled his summit with Putin, planned for early September in Moscow, because of what the White House called a lack of "significant progress" on a wide array of critical issues.
"Summits of leaders are, tend to be designed around making progress on significant issues," White House press secretary Jay Carney said Thursday. "And we had not seen that progress sufficiently on a range of issues to merit a summit."
The scuttled summit means that talks scheduled Friday at the State Department between Secretary of State John Kerry, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu will be awkward at best.
U.S.-Russia discord had been simmering since Putin regained the Russian presidency more than a year ago.
On returning to power, he adopted a deeply nationalistic and more openly confrontational stance toward the United States than the man he had chosen to succeed him as president in 2008, Dmitry Medvedev, whose tenure roughly overlapped Obama's first term in the White House.
The U.S. is upset about Moscow's backing of President Bashar Assad in Syria's civil war. The two nations also have been at odds over Russia's domestic crackdown on civil rights, a U.S. missile defense plan for Europe, trade, global security, human rights and American adoptions of Russian children.
The Kremlin expressed disappointment that the White House canceled the summit and blamed it on Washington's inability to develop relations with Moscow on an "equal basis." Putin's foreign affairs adviser, Yuri Ushakov, added that the decision was "clearly linked" to the Snowden case, a situation that he said wasn't of Russia's making.
Carney said Snowden was a factor in canceling the summit, but not the only one. Carney said the U.S. would continue to press Russia to return Snowden to the United States to face charges for the unauthorized public release of classified information.
"We have a lot of fish to fry, if you will, with the Russians. We have a lot of issues to engage with the Russians over," Carney said, emphasizing that Snowden was not the main focus of U.S. engagement with Russia.
"But it is not something that we're dropping, by any means, and, you know, it remains our position that there is ample legal justification to return Mr. Snowden to the United States," he said.
Three meetings were scheduled for Friday.
Hagel and the Russian defense minister were to meet separately in the morning, followed by the meeting of the foursome. In the afternoon, Kerry and his counterpart were to hold a bilateral meeting.
State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said the meetings were aimed at making progress on key issues, and not focused specifically on setting the groundwork for a Putin-Obama summit.
"I think there's an openness to doing that in an appropriate time where there's an opportunity to make progress," she said. "But I don't expect that's going to be a major part of the focus" of the meetings.