For the second time in 53 years, a long-planned and much-anticipated U.S.-Russian summit has been canceled over an intelligence-related spat.
On Wednesday, the White House announced that President Barack Obama has canceled his trip to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow next month after Russia granted temporary asylum to national security leaker Edward Snowden. In his statement, White House press secretary Jay Carney emphasized that the decision was not solely based on Snowden. But while the United States has grown frustrated with Russia on other issues, including missile defense and arms control, trade, commercial relations and human rights, if not for the Snowden fiasco, it is highly unlikely that the Moscow summit would have been cancelled.
Last time around the shoe was on the other foot.
On May 1, 1960, as the Soviets celebrated their May Day holiday and less than two weeks before U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower was due to meet with Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev for a summit in Paris to discuss the ongoing situation in divided Germany and the possibility of an arms control or test ban treaty, CIA pilot Francis Gary Powers took off from a base in Pakistan bound for another base in Norway. He was flying a special high-altitude spy plane named the U-2. Since it flew at a ceiling of 70,000 feet, it was thought it would be possible for it to pass over the Soviet Union undetected by radar on the ground.
On that fateful day, his planned flight path called for transgressing 2,900 miles of Soviet airspace with the goal of gathering intelligence on Soviet nuclear weapons. Near the city of Sverdlovsk Oblast in the Ural Mountains, Powers encountered Soviet fighter jets, and his plane was shot down.
The Soviets waited several days before going public with news of the crash. Convinced that the pilot was killed and the plane destroyed, the United States claimed that the U-2 had been conducting a routine weather flight but experienced a malfunction of its oxygen delivery system that had caused the pilot to black out and drift over Soviet air space.
Unbeknown to the CIA, Powers had ejected and parachuted safely to the ground, where he was captured by the KGB and held for interrogation.
On May 7, however, Khrushchev revealed that Powers was alive and uninjured, and clearly had not blacked out from oxygen deprivation. Moreover, the Soviets recovered the plane mostly intact, including the aerial camera system, and placed it on public display in Moscow as evidence of American deceit.
It became instantly apparent that the weather survey story was a cover-up for a spy program.
Khrushchev, no stranger to spying himself, was agreeable to a deal that would have salvaged the summit. All he wanted was an American apology, and for Eisenhower to deny any personal knowledge of the spy program.
Eisenhower refused. In reality, he had taken a great personal interest in the spy plane program, and considered the violation of Soviet airspace and the reconnaissance of Soviet nuclear facilities serious enough to personally approve each flight.
Instead, on May 11, Eisenhower finally acknowledged his full awareness of the entire program and of the Powers flight in particular. Moreover, he explained that such spy flights were a necessary element in maintaining national defense, and that he planned to continue them.
Khrushchev was understandably furious, and the summit promptly fell apart over the issue. The Russians also rescinded a previous invitation for Eisenhower to visit Russia as well.
For many Americans, the recent decision by Russia to grant asylum to Snowden was a slap in the face and a flashback to a Cold-War mentality, something that President Obama alluded to on Tuesday night. “There are times when they slip back into Cold War thinking and Cold War mentality,” Obama said. “What I continually say to them and to President Putin: ‘That’s the past.’”
Is it really in the past?
Though the relationship between Washington and Moscow has come a long way, the Snowden affair illustrates that there is still a long way to go.
Putin can’t have it both ways. If he chooses to willfully stab the world’s sole remaining superpower in the back, he loses his right to be accorded the preferential treatment America accords its true allies.
While there are countless differences between the cold war–era case of Gary Powers and the contemporary saga of Edward Snowden, the underlying lesson remains the same.
Like relationships between people, friendships between nations are based on mutual respect and understanding. This is a lesson that Putin has yet to learn.