Vladimir Putin was this close to caring that Barack Obama decided not to meet with him. Photographer: Jochen Eckel/Bloomberg
Vladimir Putin was this close to caring that Barack Obama decided not to meet with him. Photographer: Jochen Eckel/Bloomberg

In the U.S., President Barack Obama's decision to cancel a summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin for harboring fugitive Edward Snowden is seen as an important diplomatic demarche.

From the Russian perspective, it's a bit of a joke.

One freshly minted Russian witticism, picked up by the news site Gazeta.ru, portrayed the U.S. president as a jilted suitor: "Obama won't see Putin because Putin is already seeing Snowden."

The White House issued a statement saying Obama "looked forward to" the September G-20 summit in St. Petersburg, but that he had decided against a one-on-one meeting with Putin "given our lack of progress on issues such as missile defense and arms control, trade and commercial relations, global security issues, and human rights and civil society in the last 12 months." As regards the man wanted in the U.S. for leaking information on government surveillance, the White House said: "Russia’s disappointing decision to grant Edward Snowden temporary asylum was also a factor that we considered in assessing the current state of our bilateral relationship."

The fact that Obama stopped short of skipping the entire G-20 meeting was seen in the Putin camp as a sign of weakness. The dominant theory is that the U.S. president did not really want to make hostile moves against Russia, but domestic interests forced him to make a show of chastising Putin.

"Obama is under powerful pressure from the cold war lobby," political analyst Sergei Markov told the news agency Interfax.

"This is clearly a political defeat for Obama," pro-Putin newspaper editor Vitaly Tretyakov wrote on the social network Vkontakte. In an eerie echo of the White House statement, Tretyakov added: "Russia, strictly speaking, does not care. What could we expect from Obama's visit? A second reset? But the first one failed. A second detente? Who even remembers the first one?"

Putin's liberal opponents, for their part, could not sympathize with Obama's move. They saw better reasons than Snowden's asylum to chastise Putin.

"It's sad that Obama did not refuse to meet with Putin because of human rights violations in Russia but rather because of rights violations in the U.S.," blogger Oleg Kozyrev wrote on Twitter.

The two leaders did not have much to discuss, anyway.

Russia and the United States do not see eye to eye on most issues, from gay rights to the civil war in Syria. The differences have been starkly evident for at least a year, since Putin returned to the Kremlin after a four-year hiatus. Now a man wanted in the U.S. for espionage has found an apartment in Moscow, is looking for a job and sending out invitations to family in the U.S. If a meeting would not have changed anything, neither does its cancellation.

"Obama canceled his meeting with Putin," Russia's most popular anti-Putin politician Alexei Navalny, who is now running for mayor of Moscow, wrote on Twitter. "As for me, I held my meeting with the residents of Zyablikovo neighborhood as planned."

(Leonid Bershidsky, an editor and novelist, is a Bloomberg View contributor. Follow him on Twitter.)