The Ironies of Edward Snowden and U.S.-Russia Relations
July 24, 2013
Reports coming out of Moscow this morning suggest that Edward Snowden may be granted documents from Russian authorities that would allow him to leave the transit zone of Sheremetyevo Airport, go through customs, and enter the country while his temporary asylum request is under consideration by the Russian Immigration Service.
At first glance, many in Washington will interpret this as a negative step and a way station to Snowden receiving asylum in Russia. Snowden’s Russian lawyer, Anatoly Kucherena, has said that Snowden has decided he wants to stay in Russia, learn Russian, get a job, etc. That may well be true, but it risks jumping to conclusions about how this strange and murky affair will end. Snowden being allowed to leave the transit area could provide an opportunity for U.S. authorities to make contact with him somewhere in Moscow, though certainly not the U.S. Embassy. It seems that while Snowden has been in the transit area, it has not been possible for U.S. authorities to make contact with him, and this has been a real problem for Washington. Perhaps if Snowden had a clearer idea of what precisely his fate would be upon return to the US, he may reconsider. Earlier statements from Kucherena suggesting that Snowden fears torture, even death, upon return to the United States has certainly not been constructive.
The hope is that there has been considerable back-channel communication between U.S. and Russian authorities about finding a reasonably acceptable exit strategy from the current dilemma. Russian President Vladimir Putin has made clear several times that his preferred option is for Snowden to leave Russia as soon as possible, and there’s no reason not to believe him. Russia has already gotten some PR bang from the Snowden affair, and it’s assume that Russian intelligence authorities have copied all materials that Snowden brought with him as well as whatever else he knows about sources and methods, intelligence personnel, internal operations, etc. It is hard to imagine that Russian special services have not had extensive conversations with him, and likely this cooperation would be important in consideration of his asylum request. Staying in Russia longer only gratuitously inflames an already very shaky and vulnerable U.S.-Russia relationship that Putin does not seek to further damage, at least not because of Snowden. Putin has made clear that he will not extradite Snowden to the United States, and we should take him at his word on that. However, if Snowden himself decided that he preferred to return to the United States, then the Russians would be obliged, and perhaps happy, to let him go.
Perhaps Snowden should heed the excellent story by Kathy Lally in the Washington Post on July 19 about the predominantly sad fates of U.S. citizens who have received asylum in the Soviet Union and Russia over the last decades. There is no way that the ex-KGB agent Putin, who fundamentally despises and disrespects traitors and revealers of state secrets, would allow Snowden much running room in Russia. Putin does not really like public discussions of state surveillance of citizens, even if they are U.S. citizens, and when he states the condition of staying in Russia that Snowden stop harming the United States, he probably means he wants an end to public revelations of further documents Snowden claims to have. And if Snowden were to pursue his so-called human rights activities in Russia, he would meet a very unhappy fate indeed. Like many of his asylum seeking brethren in the past, he may find his life so restricted that he turns to drink or some worse self-destructive fate. So Snowden should not only be clear about what his likely fate would be in returning to the US, but he should also be clearly briefed by our Russian friends about how he will actually be treated upon receiving asylum in Russia if that were to happen.
Finally, if he does receive asylum in Russia and accept it, this would be the second best outcome for US security interests after Snowden himself possibly deciding to return to the US. Since we have to assume that the Chinese and the Russians already have taken all the information that he had to offer, the United States should have no interest in seeing Snowden going off to other countries and even more widely distributing his secrets. Probably Putin himself would not like to see this happen either since it would diminish the value of the intelligence that Russia has received from Snowden. Also, as noted above, we can be sure that Putin and Co. will keep Snowden on a very short leash in Russia, and Snowden should know that those who cross Putin do not end up well.
The dilemma for the Obama Administration is that while the possibility of Snowden staying in Russia may be certainly not the worst option, it would not be in a position to acknowledge this publicly. Obama would have to react, with the most likely option being to cancel the planned bilateral meeting between Obama and Putin in September when the U.S. President goes to Russia for the G-20 summit. Perhaps not much would be lost if Obama cancels the trip if there is no significant progress between Moscow and Washington on key issues including nuclear arms reductions and strategic stability, Syria, Iran, Afghanistan and others.
But perhaps the bilateral relationship on some of these strategic issues is not as hopeless as many contend. For example, also announced today was Putin’s planned trip to Tehran next month to meet newly elected Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. Putin tried to intercede with the Iranians in 2006/2007, with the support of the Bush Administration, to convince the Iranians to walk back their nuclear program, though to no avail. Obama should certainly want a personal read-out from Putin on what he learned in Tehran. Maybe this is an issue on which the two presidents can begin to forge a more trusting personal relationship because of shared interests in preventing Iran from going past the nuclear threshold. Some conversations are really best had face to face, and this would be one of them. Perhaps the Obama-Putin meeting could also provide an opportunity for a more public resolution even of the Snowden affair itself.
At any rate, Obama needs to handle the denouement very carefully and realistically to ensure the fall-out from the Snowden affair not needlessly constrain U.S. engagement with Russia on issues of much greater strategic interests—if indeed Putin wants to positively engage. This requires extensive back-channel communication coupled with very careful public diplomacy. And perhaps some of the administration’s loud critics on Russia policy and Snowden should remember that Putin did not create the Snowden problem. In blaming the Russians, it deflects attention from the more fundamental issues Snowden raises about the trade-off between national security and personal freedoms in the United States and how we go about protecting our real state secrets in a rapidly evolving digital environment.
Andrew C. Kuchins is director and senior fellow at the Russia and Eurasia Program at CSIS.
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