Economist Is VLADIMIR PUTIN a man with whom Barack Obama can do business? During his first term, the American president invested much time and effort in seeking a positive answer to that question. The White House’s announcement, on August 7th, that Mr Obama was cancelling a Moscow summit with his Russian counterpart, shows how far the Americans have drifted towards concluding that the answer may, in fact, be mostly negative.
The immediate cause of the cancelled bilateral summit—which will not prevent Mr Obama from attending a meeting of G20 leaders in St Petersburg on September 5th and 6th—was Russia’s grant of temporary asylum to Edward Snowden, the ex-spook on the run after leaking details of spying on global phone and e-mail records by America’s National Security Agency. Congress, not to mention public opinion, would have been outraged had Mr Obama carried on with summitry-as-usual.
But the White House set its decision in a wider context, listing frustrations predating the Snowden crisis, from a lack of progress on missile defence and trade wrangles to the treatment of Russian civil society. There was offsetting talk of areas where Russia has been helpful: over Iran and North Korea, and in granting access to Afghanistan through its territory.
But a final grumble on the list, “global security issues”, hinted at a large dispute of the moment: Russia’s defence of the Assad regime in Syria, and threats to deliver an advanced air-defence system to Syria that would gravely complicate future Western or Israeli air strikes or no-fly zones over Syria.
Mr Obama has spent years tolerating anti-American rhetoric from Russia, including harassment of his diplomats and American-funded projects. Growing political repression and anti-gay campaigns prompt revulsion among Obama supporters back home. Yet a day before the summit’s cancellation Mr Obama called Mr Snowden’s asylum merely “disappointing”, adding that “a lot of business” can still be done with Russia.
Alas, Mr Putin is not in the mood for serious business, and Mr Obama has no time for small talk.