By Jill Dougherty
Two days after calling off a meeting with Russian president Vladimir Putin in Moscow, President Barack Obama said Friday he is re-evaluating the entire U.S./Russia relationship.
Obama, speaking at a White House news conference, seemed ready for a more rocky relationship with the Kremlin.
"It is probably appropriate for us to take a pause, reassess where it is that Russia's going, what our core interests are, and calibrate the relationship so that we're doing things that are good for the United States and hopefully good for Russia as well, but recognizing that there are just going to be some differences and we're not going to be able to completely disguise them, and that's ok."
Obama told reporters his decision not to participate in the Moscow summit next month went beyond Russia's decision to give temporary asylum to admitted National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden.
"It had to do with the fact that, frankly, on a whole range of issues where we think we can make some progress Russia has not moved," he said. "And so, we don't consider that strictly punitive."
Obama appeared to blame much of the deterioration in relations on Putin.
When Putin "came back into power," Obama noted, "I think we saw more rhetoric on the Russian side that was anti-American, that played into some of the old stereotypes about the Cold War contest between the United States and Russia. And I've encouraged Mr. Putin to think forward as opposed to backwards on those issues, with mixed success."
Obama insisted, however, that he didn't have a bad relationship with his counterpart.
"When we have conversations they are candid, they are blunt, often times they are constructive," he said.
Speaking in unusually personal terms, Obama added: "I know the press likes to focus on body language and he's got that kinda slouch, looking like the bored kid in the back of the classroom, but the truth is that when we are in conversations together oftentimes it's very productive."
Speaking to reporters after Secretary of State John Kerry and Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel met with their Russian counterparts at the State Department, the president said the "latest episode" - the disagreement over Snowden - "is just one more in a number of emerging differences that we've seen over the last several months around Syria, around human rights issues."
Criticizing the Kremlin's approach, he said: "If issues are framed as 'if U.S. is for it, then Russia should be against it,' or 'we're going to be finding ways where we can poke each other at every opportunity,' then probably we don't get as much stuff done."
Obama said his administration will continue working with Russia, but added: "Where we have differences, we're going to say so clearly and my hope is, is that over time, Mr. Putin and Russia recognize that rather than a zero sum competition, in fact, if the two countries are working together, we can probably advance the betterment of both peoples."
At a news conference following the State Department meeting, Russia's foreign minister defended its handling of the Snowden affair, insisting that Moscow had based its decision to grant temporary amnesty on Russian law and international law, noting that Russia and the U.S. do not have an extradition treaty.
"We only adhere to the current legislation that is in place in the Russian Federation," Sergey Lavrov said. "We never violated any part of it. We do realize that there is so much emotion focused around this matter, but this is not a matter that could undermine or somehow threaten the general strategic stability."
"Snowden did not overshadow our discussions," he insisted, adding that the issue should not affect relations between the two countries.
The United States wants Snowden returned to the United States to face charges under the Espionage Act.
Lavrov went out of his way to insist the Obama/Putin summit was not "canceled" by the White House: "Once again, I would like to correct you when you say that the meeting was cancelled," he told one reporter. "The announcement said postponed, and that's what was confirmed to us."
In a briefing with reporters, U.S. official said the United States wants a summit with Putin but "substance has to be there" on a number of issues.
Obama was asked whether the United States should boycott the 2014 Winter Olympics which Russia is hosting in the Black Sea resort of Sochi as a protest over Russia's anti-gay propaganda law. He said he did not think a boycott is "appropriate."
"We have a bunch of Americans out there who are training hard, who are doing everything they can to succeed," he said. "No one is more offended than me by some of the anti-gay and lesbian legislation that you've been seeing in Russia."
"One of the things I'm really looking forward to," he said, "is maybe some gay and lesbian athletes bringing home the gold or silver or bronze which, I think, would go a long way in rejecting the kinds of attitudes that we are seeing there. And if Russia doesn't have gay or lesbian athletes then it will probably make their team weaker."