The Cable

U.S. on Future Talks With Russia: ‘It's Their Move Now'

Secretary of State John Kerry and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel would still like to meet with their Russian counterparts on Friday, even though their boss just cancelled his Moscow summit with Vladimir Putin. They've got things to discuss: Syria, Iran, the 2014 Olympics, and missile defense, to name a few.

Whether the Russians decide to show for the planned meetings in DC after  President Obama's diplomatic snub of Putin is a bit of an open question.

"It's their move now. We still think it's prudent to have this meeting,"  a U.S. official tells The Cable. "As of this moment we're planning to meet."

"There are a number of issues that are important for us to discuss," the official adds. "But we'll need to see if there's progress on any of those areas before bringing it up to the highest levels."

Both countries have reasons for keeping the lines of communication open, from nuclear arms to Syria's civil war. But Russia's refusal to handover NSA leaker Edward Snowden created a diplomatic rift between the two nations, which White House Press Secretary Jay Carney openly called out in a Wednesday morning statement. "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," said Carney.  

The tit-for-tat decision was decidedly "un-Obama," as Matthew Rojansky, a Russia expert at the Wilson Center's Kennan Institute, put it. But the White House came under significant pressure from members of Congress to retaliate against the Kremlin for harboring Snowden. Many of those Representatives are now applauding Obama's decision.

"The President was absolutely right to cancel his meeting with Putin," said Rep. Eliot Engel, ranking member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. "Russia's decision to grant Snowden temporary asylum was a deliberate provocation - and one I believe was designed to further undermine U.S.-Russia relations, which have already suffered from Russian intransigence on a number of other important issues. While our ties with Moscow are certainly important, we must show Russia that its harboring of a wanted fugitive like Edward Snowden will negatively affect our relationship."

The committee's Republican chairman responded to Wednesday's news in kind. "This should help make clear that the Russian government's giving Edward Snowden ‘refugee' status is unacceptable," Royce said. "Snowden should be sent to the U.S. to defend his actions in a U.S. court of law."

Hagel and Kerry will tackle issues besides the NSA leaker. But the White House has made it clear that prospects for significant breakthroughs were already slim. "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 twelve months, we have informed the Russian Government that we believe it would be more constructive to postpone the summit until we have more results from our shared agenda," Carney said.

Though some in Congress discouraged the White House against it, the President still intends to attend the G-20 Summit in St. Petersburg beginning on September 5.

The Cable

What Happens During an Embassy Shutdown, Anyway?

The State Department has closed a total of 19 diplomatic posts in the Middle East, North Africa, and East Africa and has ordered the U.S. Embassy in Yemen evacuated. But what exactly does that mean for U.S. missions and U.S. citizens abroad?

To find out, we talked to a current State Department Foreign Service officer who is on detail at the American Foreign Service Association, a union for diplomats. Although he requested anonymity, he was happy to share some pertinent details about this week's closings, given his experience serving in hot spots around the world.

Q: What are all the diplomats doing during the closings?

A: What's important to keep in mind is the difference between a temporary closing and an evacuation. When it's a closure, like what we have this week, you're not talking about moving people out of the country. The building is not opened to the public. But people are staying home, and in some cases, people continue to work at the embassy.

Q: And for evacuations?

A: That's a different extreme. When I was in Munich in 2006, the conflict in Lebanon caused us to pull a number of people out of Lebanon and facilitate an evacuation. We had diplomatic personnel all over the place that were deployed to assist American citizens getting out of the place. Obviously, it requires a lot more activity than a closing.

Q: What if an American citizen really needs help. Do embassies leave them out to dry?

A: If there's an emergency, we're not going to sit on our hands. If an American citizen gets arrested or, God forbid, is killed, we're going to go into action. You're not going to be able to just walk up to our door, but we'll find a way to service their needs.

Q: The State Department says the security situation in the embassies is constantly being re-evaluated. What's that process like at the embassy level?

A: A lot of decisions are being made. All over at every single post, you're evaluating the situation. Emergency Action committees meet; the deputy chief of mission is there; they're talking; they're providing input. With so many posts being closed, these conversations are happening across the affected regions. There's also a conversation in D.C. at State. These conversations eat up a lot of people's time.… But everyone is asking the same question: When can we go back to normal operations?

Q: Will there be a substantial backlog of work when all is said and done?

A: Any visa appointments will need to be rescheduled, but that's something visa sections deal with all the time. Our consular services are very good at dealing with these externalities. Their flexibility is a hallmark of our service.

Q: Do these closures tend to rattle foreign diplomats at all?

A: It's worth taking a moment to remember that foreign-service officers recognize that openings, closings, and evacuations are part and parcel of the foreign-service life. Most of us know we're going to serve at an unaccompanied post, meaning no family members. It's something that people accept as part of the life.