U.S.-Russian relations have been deteriorating since President Vladimir Putin returned to the Kremlin last year and began ratcheting up anti-American rhetoric that has played into "old stereotypes about the Cold War,” President Obama said at a White House news conference Friday.
Though Obama rejected the idea that he has a bad relationship with Putin, he said he has had “mixed success” in getting the Kremlin leader to focus on the future and what the two nations can agree on, rather than the past and what divides them.
Obama was candid in describing the state of relations between Moscow and Washington as beset with serious differences over the granting of asylum to fugitive National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden; how to end the civil war in Syria; and human rights, particularly recent Russian legislation that punishes public displays of support for gay rights.
Russia’s decision to give refuge to Snowden, rather than deliver him to Washington to face espionage charges, was among the disputes that prompted Obama to cancel a planned summit with Putin next month. He insisted, though, that the cancellation wasn’t punitive, that it was a reflection of the lack of progress on a broad array of bilateral issues.
Despite the anti-gay law, Obama said he was opposed to calls for a U.S. boycott of the 2014 Olympic Winter Games being hosted by Russia in the Black Sea resort of Sochi. He said American athletes have been working too hard to be denied an opportunity to bring home personal and national glory from the prestigious competition, only six months away.
“Nobody's more offended than me by some of the anti-gay and lesbian legislation that you've been seeing in Russia,” he said.
But rather than ruin the lifelong dreams of U.S. competitors with a boycott, Obama said, he prefers to see the U.S. team prevail against a Russian squad, whose exclusion of homosexual athletes would “probably make their team weaker.”
“One of the things I'm really looking forward to is maybe some gay and lesbian athletes bringing home the gold or silver or bronze, which I think would go a long way in rejecting the kind of attitudes that we're seeing there,” Obama said.
On the general state of relations with Russia, Obama seemed to imply that the ball was in Russia’s court when it came to warming up the current chill.
“My hope is that, over time, Mr. Putin and Russia recognize that rather than a zero-sum competition, in fact, if the two countries are working together, we can probably advance the betterment of both peoples,” Obama said.
Asked if he has reconciled himself to a tough relationship with Putin, after significant progress on arms control and economic cooperation with former President Dmitri Medvedev during his first term, Obama denied that his talks with Putin were unproductive. He said their private conversations were “blunt” and “candid,” but also more businesslike than the sometimes aloof posture of the Kremlin leader would suggest.
“He’s got that kind of slouch, looking like the bored kid in the back of the classroom,” Obama said. “ But the truth is, is that when we're in conversations together, oftentimes it's very productive."
What remains to be seen from Putin, Obama said, is "where does he want to take Russia?”
Obama took questions from reporters as the U.S. and Russian top diplomats and defense chiefs met to tackle an ambitious agenda of tasks that both sides identified as the “responsibilities” of major countries.
Bringing Syrian President Bashar Assad and the myriad rebel groups fighting to oust him together for a peace conference is a major priority, U.S. Secretary of State John F. Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov agreed at a brief news appearance. The two men also pledged to work toward resolving their governments’ differences over how to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons technology and to accelerate progress on arms control and missile defense.
U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu also took part in the so-called 2+2 meeting, the importance of which was elevated by Obama’s decision this week to cancel his summit with Putin.