The White House shot down calls for a US boycott of the Sochi winter Olympics on Thursday as it tried to draw a line under recent disputes with Russia ahead of ministerial talks scheduled in Washington.
Amid concerns that this week’s decision to cancel a planned presidential summit had set relations back to levels rarely seen since the end of the Cold War, White House spokesman Jay Carney sought to move on from a recent row over the extradition of NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden.
Secretary of state John Kerry and defense secretary Chuck Hagel are still expected to meet their Russian counterparts for a series of discussions over other matters at the State Department on Friday.
“We have a number of issues that we are engaging with them on and we continue to discuss these issues going forward,” said Carney. “[Snowden] is not the focus, but it is not something that we are dropping in any way.”
He also stressed that the dispute over Snowden was only part of the reason for calling off the previously arranged summit in Moscow between Barack Obama and Vladimir Putin. It had been timed to coincide with Obama’s visit to St Petersburg for the G20 conference in September, but Obama will now go to Sweden instead.
“Snowden was a factor but there have been a number of issues that caused us to reassess the utility of holding a bilateral,” said Carney.
“To guess what the outcome would have been without Snowden is hard to do but as we have made clear there was not enough progress on other issues for a summit to make sense.”
Though stressing that the White House remained angry over Russia’s decision to grant Snowden asylum, its comments on Thursday suggest some attempt to contain the fall-out from the row.
Carney distanced the administration, for example, from various calls to block US participation in the forthcoming winter Olympics, due to take place on Sochi next year.
US hawks, such as senator Lindsey Graham, had suggested a boycott in retaliation for allowing Snowden to remain in the country. There are also separate calls for US athletes to stay away in protest against recent Russian legislation discriminating against gay people.
The White House re-iterated that Obama condemned Russia’s gay rights record, but poured cold water on any talk of a boycott over either issue.
Asked to comment on parallels with a US-organised boycott of the 1980 Moscow games, Carney responded: “That is a conversation that we are not having. To speak about something like that is not in anyone’s interests,”
The Russian embassy in Washington said it had taken the unusual decision of hosting its own press conference following Friday’s ministerial talks since the US State Department had chosen not to host any public event event.
A spokesman said he expected the talks to focus on “military and political matters” but declined to elaborate.
“We don’t comment ahead of these meetings,” he said. “Let’s wait and see what happens.”