Kerry, Hagel To Meet Russian Counterparts On Friday

The U.S. has canceled plans for an Obama-Putin summit because Russia granted temporary asylum to NSA leaker Edward Snowden. But Secretary of State John Kerry and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel will go ahead with plans to meet their counterparts in Washington.

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It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

And I'm Linda Wertheimer. The White House has decided there's no point in having a US/Russia summit next month as planned, but the Obama administration is going ahead with lower level talks. The meetings tomorrow between Secretary of State John Kerry, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and their Russian counterparts could be contentious. The relationship between the countries has turned chillier, most recently when Russia granted temporary asylum to Edward Snowden, who leaked secret documents about U.S. government surveillance. NPR's Michele Kelemen reports.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki says the decision to cancel the summit with Vladimir Putin was unanimous. No one on Obama's national security staff - including Secretary of State Kerry - thought it was worth it.

JEN PSAKI: Major issues were not teed up to make significant progress on the level of a president-to-president summit. But there certainly is a recognition that it's important to maintain regular contact, dialogue with Russia on the issues where we agree and the issues where we disagree.

KELEMEN: She says the Snowden affair will be part of - but not a large part of the agenda on Friday. Psaki says Secretary Kerry will have a chance to discuss with Russia's foreign minister Sergei Lavrov their efforts to hold a peace conference on Syria, concerns about Iran's nuclear program and proposals on arms control issues. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Russia's defense minister Sergei Shoigui will also take part in the discussions. Georgetown University professor Angela Stent describes the new U.S. approach this way.

ANGELA STENT: The idea is to let the relationship continue at a level that is below that of the two presidents and see whether those contacts might not be able to produce an agenda which then could lead to some deliverables.

KELEMEN: But that may not work in US/Russian relations says another expert, Matthew Rojansky who runs the Kennan Institute at the Wilson Center. He says nothing can or will happen in the meeting on Friday because in Russia, Putin calls the shots.

MATTHEW ROJANSKY: Lavrov, the foreign minister, has been a loyal servant. He's been a very effective, competent professional diplomat, but he's not a political shot caller. You know, he's not sitting in the Kremlin, making the decision on the level of Putin or really even advising on those decisions. Similarly with Shoigu, the defense minister who was brought in after the previous guy was fired. He is a loyal servant of the state.

KELEMEN: Rojansky thinks it was a mistake to cancel the summit with Putin, even if it would have been uncomfortable for Obama. Samuel Charap, a former arms control advisor to the State Department, says the decision was understandable and the fact that the White Louse announced it even before Friday's meeting is a sign of just how little was at stake. But Charap, who is with the International Institute for Strategic Studies says ignoring Russia isn't a viable strategy either.

SAMUEL CHARAP: Summit or no summit, the U.S. will need Russia. if we want to resolve Iran, if we want to deal with Afghanistan, Syria, non-proliferation, counter narcotics, you know, Russia just is a big player on all of these issues.

KELEMEN: These are all issues that will be on the agenda during the so-called Two-Plus-Two talks that Kerry and Hagel are hosting for their Russian counterparts Friday. Officials aren't raising high expectations, though, that the two sides can work through their long list of disputes. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington.

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