Obama, back for another Leno interview, accuses Russia of ‘Cold War thinking’

Neil Munro White House Correspondent
Font Size:

President Barack Obama lashed out at Russia’s treatment of its sexual minorities on Tuesday, but he downplayed the massive intelligence victory over the United States that Russian strongman Vladimir Putin won by helping engineer Edward Snowden’s defection.

During an appearance on NBC’s “The Tonight Show,” Obama told host Jay Leno said he has “no patience for countries that try to treat gays and lesbians and transgendered persons in ways that intimidate them or are harmful to them.”

On Wednesday morning, a White House official told reporters that Obama would cancel a customary one-on-one meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin at the impending G-20 summit in Petersburg, Russia. The announcement came after some groups urged Obama to boycott the meeting.

“I have been very clear that when it comes to universal rights, when it comes to people’s basic freedoms, that whether you’re discriminating on the basis of race, religion, gender, or sexual orientation you are violating the basic morality that I think should transcend every country,” he declared.

He also seemed to believe that Russia’s controversial new laws curbing apparent advocacy of homosexuality could cause problems at the 2014 winter Olympics in southern Russia.

“I think Putin and Russia have a big stake in making sure the Olympics work,” he said.

“I think they understand that for most of the countries that participate in the Olympics, we wouldn’t tolerate gays and lesbians being treated differently — they’re athletes” he said. “If Russia wants to uphold the Olympic spirit, then every judgment should be made on the track or in the swimming pool or on the balance beam and people’s sexual orientation shouldn’t have anything to do with it,” he said.

However, there’s no indication from Russia that the new rules would change the grading system for downhill skiing and other other events.

But while Obama used strong language over a domestic matter only affecting the citizens of Russia, he downplayed the dispute over  national-security leaks by Snowdon — a government contractor who disclosed secret data about U.S. electronic surveillance programs — by saying the crisis would not prompt him to boycott the G-20 Summit.

This month, Russia offered Edward Snowdon temporary sanctuary in Russia, frustrating U.S efforts to get him into U.S. custody before he reveals more secrets about the American government’s worldwide surveillance capability.

Obama patronized Putin’s decision to keep Snowden.

“There are times when they slip back into Cold War thinking and Cold War mentality. What I continually say to them and to President Putin, that’s the past,” he said.

Obama also evaded Leno’s question over whether Snowdon should be called a whistleblower. “Well, we don’t know yet exactly what he did other than what he said on the Internet, and it’s important for me not to prejudge something,” he said.

But Obama did offer a low-key defense of the surveillance programs.

“This intelligence gathering that we do is a critical component to counter terrorism,” he said.

“If in fact the allegations are true that he [leaked information], then that is a huge problem because a lot of what we do is terrorist networks not knowing, you know, that, in fact, we may be able to access their information.”

Russian legislators have recently restricted demonstrations and advocacy by Western-style gay and lesbian interest groups in Russia.

The authors of the law say they’re worried about Russia’s low birth rate and declining population. The decline follows seven decades of harsh Soviet rule and several brutal wars, and it is occurring during a period of rapid growth of restive Muslims populations in the former empire’s southern provinces.

The Russian government has tried a variety of methods to increase the low non-Muslim birth-rate, which threatens to shrink Russia’s population, economy, military and clout. Russia faces rising threats from China as well as its own Muslim populations in Chechnya and other provinces.

Follow Neil on Twitter