Is Russia acting wisely in its handling of the Snowden affair?

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Is Russia acting wisely in its handling of the Snowden affair?
Published 2-07-2013, 13:19

Two weeks ago, this Panel addressed the issue of the fugitive former US intelligence analyst Edward Snowden, who has been charged by the US authorities with a range of crimes, including the theft of government property and disclosure of classified intelligence. We asked whether Russia should risk another blow to its relations with America by even contemplating offering safe haven to Snowden.

At the time of writing this week’s Panel introduction, Snowden, having left Hong Kong on a flight to Moscow on Sunday, 23 June, remains in the transit area of Sheremetyevo airport outside the Russian capital city. Sweeping aside intense US pressure to apprehend and repatriate Snowden, President Vladimir Putin made clear that, in the absence of an extradition treaty between the US and Russia, he considers the fugitive to be a "free man” whom Moscow would not prevent from travelling to any country of his choice. At the same time, in what appeared an attempt to limit potential damage to bilateral relations, Putin indicated that Russia would prefer Snowden to move on to his final destination without much delay.

At first glance, the Snowden affair might well be dismissed as yet another diplomatic spat between the former Cold War rivals (with China involved for good measure this time round, owing to Snowden’s choice of Hong Kong as his initial safe haven). However, closer examination suggests that it is more significant than that – not least because it highlights the failure of the two countries to establish constructive relations, including in the critical area of public security.

The gathering of anti-terrorism intelligence – which Snowden is alleged to have compromised and which he may compromise further if he is not gagged – is vital for the public security of both countries, as the recent terrorist attacks in Boston demonstrated. Were relations between Russia and the US healthy, if not cordial, it is likely that the Russian authorities would not be overly fastidious in respecting the legally ambiguous status of an airport transit zone and would find a way of extraditing Snowden. However, it is difficult to see why Russia should be eager to cooperate in this way, given the long list of its weighty grievances against Washington.

First, Putin continues to be perceived by the US political class, officialdom and media as an autocrat whose legitimacy is, at best, questionable; for this and other reasons, he and his regime remain the target of withering criticism – if not covert destabilization – as seen most recently over the drive to regulate NGOs that receive funds from abroad. Second, the passage by the US Congress of the legally unsound and inherently arbitrary Magnitsky Act has hardly endeared Russia’s security agencies. Third, US media and politicians are prone to apply double standards as regards anti-terrorism activities, frequently implicitly or explicitly depicting Islamist terrorists in Russia as "freedom fighters”. And last but not least, Washington has largely dismissed Moscow’s concerns about its plans for the deployment of the ballistic missile defences close to Russia’s borders.

Against this background, US Secretary of State John Kerry’s appeals to Russians to cooperate simply as America’s "friends” and co-members of the US Security Council could be seen as disingenuous. However, it is doubtful that Moscow’s failure to cooperate would be in Russia’s own best interests. On future occasions, Russia might well require Washington to cooperate in similar circumstances; and if such is the case, its handling of the Snowden affair could prove decisive as to how Washington chooses to respond.


  • How should Moscow respond to requests from Washington to extradite individuals such as Snowden?
  • How significant is the Snowden affair in the context of US-Russia relations?
  • Would extraditing individuals such as Snowden yield an improvement in US-Russian relations and hence aid anti-terrorism activities from which everyone would benefit? 

  • The topic for the Discussion Panel is provided by Vlad Sobell,

    Editor, Expert Discussion Panel

    Professor, New York University, Prague

    Editor, Consensus East-West Europe



    Expert Panel Contributions



    Martin Sieff

    Chief Global Analyst, The Globalist

    Snowden’s Sheremetyevo adventure has both positive and negative sides

    Edward Snowden is uncannily like the hapless Prophet Jonah in the Bible: He sinks every ship he every sails on just by being there. Now he is torpedoing what is left of already fragile US-Russian relations.
    Snowden made fools of the US government yet again when he successfully fled Hong Kong for Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport. He is clearly not going to stay in Russia. He wants to get to Ecuador. And Russian President Vladimir Putin, while he will not turn Snowden over to the United States, has made clear he wants him out of Russia as fast as possible. Putin, no fool at any time, can clearly recognize a Jonah-character when he sees him.
    As it is, Snowden’s choice of Sheremetyevo Airport has both positive and negative sides. On the positive side, I have many warm memories of its famous Irish bar and I hope the Irish stew there is still cooked by its old Kazakh chef and weirdly seasoned with Central Asian and Persian spices.
    On the negative side, Snowden is haplessly doing serious damage to the genuinely important matter of US-Russian relations.
    US President Barack Obama got off to an excellent start in his second term in dealing with Moscow when he appointed the experienced, patient and shrewd John Kerry as secretary of state. Kerry was one of the vanishingly rare people left in the US Congress who recognized that good relations between Washington and Moscow are still crucially important to both countries and for the peace and security of the world. New Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel got off to a good start too, reining in potentially reckless new US ballistic missile deployment plans in Central Europe.
    But that was then, and this is now. On June 26, while Snowden was still camped out at Sheremetyevo, possibly even enjoying its Kazakh-flavored Irish stew, Secretary Hagel called on Russia to turn Snowden over. The day before, on June 25, Putin had already made clear he would not do that.
    In general, the United States and Russia cooperate constructively when it comes to extraditing obvious criminals to each other. But different standards apply when alleged spies or political security threats are involved. Americans would almost certainly have been spared the bombings that killed three innocent people at the Boston Marathon had Russia’s 2011 request for the extradition of Chechen jihadist Tamerlan Tsarnaev been honored by the US authorities. The temptation to play tit-for-tat now with Snowden must have been irresistible to the Kremlin.
    The bottom line of Snowden’s misadventures at Sheremetyevo is that they highlight the failure of the US and Russia to establish constructive relations, especially in the critical area of public security. Russia’s refusal to hand Snowden over, even while it refuses to offer him a lasting refuge, should also be seen as payback for the US Congress passing the absurd, witless and plain destructive Magnitsky Act last year. 
    The gathering of anti-terrorism intelligence – which Snowden is alleged to have compromised and which he may compromise further if he is not gagged – is vital for the public security of both Russia and the United States. The two nuclear superpowers should now agree to craft a new mutual extradition treaty that will focus especially on cooperating in the fight against extreme Islamist terrorism. Of course, this would require US authorities in future to hand over suspected terrorists to Russia as well instead of rashly hailing them as "freedom fighters.” But once in a while, governments are expected to act like adults.



    Anatoly Karlin

    Da Russophile


    No use crying over leaked milk, let alone threatening sanctions


    In the introduction to this Panel, Vlad Sobell writes: "On future occasions, Russia might well require Washington to cooperate in similar circumstances; and if such is the case, its handling of the Snowden affair could prove decisive as to how Washington chooses to respond."
    Well, let's imagine this scenario. One fine day, an FSB contractor named Eduard Snegirev takes a flight out to Dulles International Airport and proceeds to spill the beans – though as with PRISM and Boundless Informant, it's pretty much an open secret anyway – on SORM-2 and how the Russian state spies on its hapless citizens. Would Immigration and Customs Enforcement turn him away? Would the FBI rush to honor a Russian extradition request on the basis of his violating Article 275 of the Criminal Code "On State Treason"? It is impossible even to ask this question without a smirk on one's face.
    Don't get me wrong. It is entirely reasonable to agree to and honor extradition treaties covering "universal" crimes such as murder, rape, or – shock horror! – financial fraud(even if official London would beg to differ). But this approach breaks down when we get to "crimes" such as those of the real Snowden or the hypothetical Snegirev because their crimes are not universal, but asymmetric and relational: Asymmetric because a traitor in one country is a hero (or at least a useful asset) in another, and relational because a traitor to some people is a whistle-blower to others.


    Sergey Tretyakov, otherwise known as "Comrade J", betrayed his sources and fellow agents in the SVR when he defected to the US in 2000. Yet on his death, many of the people discussing his life at the blog of Pete Early, his official biographer, called him a "patriot". Not just an American patriot, mind you, but a Russian one as well – as if he had done his motherland a favor. They are free to think that but it will not change the fact that in his homeland about 98% of the population really would think of him as a traitor through and through.
    Or take Vasily Mitrokhin. In the West, he is overwhelmingly considered a heroic whistle-blower who risked his life to chronicle the crimes committed by the KGB abroad. But he neither concealed the identities of Soviet sources and existing agents – unlike Snowden or Assange – nor revealed his documents to the entire world, opting instead to give them wholemeal to MI6. Nonetheless, demanding the repatriation of either one would be inherently ridiculous and only make Russia into a laughing stock – which is why it never even thought of doing so. No use crying over spilled – or should that be leaked? – milk.
    The US, too, was usually reasonable about such matters, quietly accepting that their espionage laws have no weight outside their own territory and the territory of their closest allies – as has always been the case for all states since time immemorial. This is why the hysterics on this occasion are so ... strange. While John "I see the letters K-G-B in Putin's eyes" McCain is a clinical case, it is considerably more puzzling to see similar fiery rhetoric from the likes of Chuck Schumer or John Kerry (although the latter soon moderated his tone). Such attitudes probably proceed from official America's tendency to view itself as a global empire, not beholden to the normal laws and conventions of international politics. Now while its closest allies (or clients) might humor it in such delusions, even its "third-class" allies like Germany do not* –not to mention sovereign Great Powers such as China and, yes, Russia.
    In any case, as far as the Kremlin is concerned, it is now almost politically impossible to extradite Snowden even if it so wished. Although there have been no official opinion polls on the matter, online surveys indicate that Russians are overwhelmingly against expelling Snowden. 98% of the readers of Vzglyad (a pro-Putin resource), and even 50% of readers and listeners of Echo of Moscow (one of the shrillest anti-Putin outlets) support giving him political asylum. Moreover, it would also destroy Russia's incipient reputation as a sanctuary for Western dissidents – a great propaganda boon against the legions of Western commentators who vilify that country every day as a ruthless autocracy.
    To his credit, Obama seems to more or less realize this: He knows that he cannot issue orders to Russia or even Ecuador and that it is not worth threatening sanctions or"scrambling jets" just to "get a 29-year-old hacker". While the neocons and "American exceptionalists" will get their 15 minutes of blowing hard on TV and the op-ed pages, the episode is – and has been from the get go – likely to end in just one way: Snowden’s quiet and untrumpeted retirement for in Quito, Caracas, or Barvikha.
    So what on Earth's up with that anyway? Here is the most worrying theory I've been able to come up with: They actually take George Friedman seriously.



    Dmitry Mikheyev

    Former Senior Fellow at the Hudson Institute, teaches "Leadership in the 21stcentury” at variousbusiness schools in Moscow


    The Snowden affair gives Russia a unique opportunity to enhance its prestige

    The Edward J. Snowden scandal has raised many intriguing and disturbing questions. Snowden has disclosed that the US spies not only on US citizens but on all of the world population that uses modern means of communications. He told us that the National Security Agency has accumulated huge amount of data by using not only its own (and British) technical means of eavesdropping but those of innocuous commercial institutions, such as Google and Skype Snowden also said that he decided to blow the whistle after he "realized that he was part of something that was doing far more harm than good.” While Washington sees him as a traitor who has violated American espionage laws and betrayed the US government, he instantly became a hero to billions of people around the world.

    We all know that banks, insurance agencies, retailers, and advertisers collect information about our financial situation, tastes, life style and movements. Grudgingly we learned to live with this intrusion into our private life because we were treated as customers who still hold the power of choice – to buy or not to buy. The situation is entirely different when a powerful secret agency treats us as potential terrorists and has the capacity to accumulate and integrate data from all sources. Such integration has a synergetic effect with ominous implications: it is the agency that decides that you represent a danger.

    Because Big Brother is waging a "global war on terror” with ubiquitous invisible enemies who can be found anywhere – even as we now know, in his very bosom – he is naturally paranoid. Every person on Earth becomes a suspect, particularly those who nurture ambitions stretching beyond the "America dream” – that is, getting as rich as possible. If you are bright, active and ambitious, if you strive for recognition in science or technology, if you aspire for a career in politics, diplomacy or especially military and intelligence affairs, you are bound to attract Big Brother’s attention. It is because you strive for influence, and influence means power, and power should serve good (i.e., American) objectives. Now, once you have been spotted by Big Brother, he can use his database to draw up a pretty comprehensive profile of you. He will know not only your political views and religious beliefs but all your strengths and weaknesses – your financial and family situation, chronic diseases, hobbies, drug and alcohol use, the state of your sex life, your connections, relatives, friends, your activities and so forth.

    This makes you highly vulnerable, in fact, totally powerless vis-a-vis Big Brother, who has military bases in 130 countries and a presence in the rest. If he decides that you represent a danger to America as he understands it, he can blackmail you, block your bank accounts, kidnap you, send a voluptuous agent to your hotel room, or simply kill you by a single shot from a drone. President of Panama Manuel Noriega and two Russian citizens were kidnapped and put in jail; Osama Bin Laden was killed on the territory of a large sovereign state – one that was, to boot, a member of the nuclear club; Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the head of the IMF, was arrested by the NY Police, and of course a number of heads of states have been killed.

    But suppose you think of yourself as squeaky clean – a person who pays taxes in full and on time, who does not suffer from alcohol or drug dependence, whose sexual orientation and life are perfectly puritanical, etc. Why should you worry? Because once you were classified as an enemy, Big Brother can misinterpret your innocent trips to Egypt or visits of certain Internet sites as confirming his profile of you.

    As the story broke, I was amazed how all governments, save a few reckless "rogue states”, immediately succumbed to the Hegemon’s demand not to shelter the "traitor”. Even China, this fledging super-power, caved in by orchestrating Snowden’s escape through the allegedly independent territory of Hong Kong. Only three Latin American braves – Cuba, Ecuador, and Venezuela – have had the courage to defy the Hegemon’s order and offer Snowden political asylum.

    This brings us to Russia and her standing in the world community. Putin, who allegedly "loves poking his finger in America’s eye”, has also momentarily succumbed to American pressure. He uttered some nonsense about the transit zone not officially being Russian soil and rushed to assure American counterparts that the Russian security agencies "have not been involved with Snowden”. He insulted Snowden by saying "It's like shearing a piglet: a lot of squealing and little wool''. Thus, he made clear that Snowden is not worth the trouble and that he has no intention of aggravating already chilly relations with the Hegemon over him. True, he refused to extradite Snowden, but he has shown not a hint of desire to use the opportunity to humiliate the United States by demonstratingits impotence. Washington was pleased and toned down its anti-Russian rhetoric. Snowden has got stuck in Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport and the question of Russian political asylum for him hangs in the air.

    Putin said "the sooner he chooses his final destination, the better it will be for him and Russia." But why?! The Snowden affair gives Russia a rare, perhaps even unique opportunity, to significantly enhance its prestige and standing in the international arena.

    Russian leadership should take a broader look at the Snowden gambit. First, why encourage Snowden, this valuable source, to go elsewhere? Russian intelligence services have the right and obligation to know what information the NSA has accumulated on Russian citizens and officials in sensitive positions, particularly in light of the Magnitsky Act. They should question Snowden about the data he has, how it is being collected, how the PRISM program works and how potential damage can be prevented.

    Second, and more important, Russian officials should keep in mind that this geopolitical game is a battle for the "hearts and minds” of humanity. If Russia behaves as a strong and fully sovereign nation, not a junior "partner” of the US, if she exhibits confidence, dignity and firmness, she will get much greater dividends than what at best will be the grudging approval of the American elite. Any goodwill gestures made to please the US, including the extradition of Snowden, will backfire in more disrespect and further pressure. On the other hand, if Russia grants political asylum to Snowden, she will earn the admiration and gratitude of billions of people for whom he is a hero risking his life to defend their rights from Big Brother.


    Andrej Kreutz

    Adjunct Professor, University of Calgary

    Affiliated Expert, European Geopolitical Forum

    Russia should not extradite Snowden

    Since the very beginning of the Snowden affair I have been convinced that Moscow’s implication in the affair would probably turn out badly, both for Russian national interests and for the public cause that Snowden claims to represent. All my misgivings notwithstanding, this former CIA and National Security Agency contractor arrived in Russia on June 23, and as far as we know he is staying at Sheremetyevo airport in Moscow. This is certainly not a comfortable situation for him; and as both Lavrov and Putin have admitted, it causes new problems for the Russian leadership, who faces Washington’s requests to extradite him. In fact, there is a real threat of more American pressure, and interstate relations could further deteriorate.

    The American journalist Mark Adomanis, who until now has been sympathetic to Russia, argues that "in mid-2013 Russia simply can’t afford to go into a confrontation with the US because that is a confrontation that they are guaranteed to lose.” In his opinion "every hour that Snowden spends in Sheremetyevo increases the likelihood of a major crisis.”[1]There was also no lack of severe warnings from US officials, including Secretary of State John Kerry.

    People who argue in favour of Moscow’s submission to Washington’s demands have some strong arguments, but I do not think it is either necessary or the right way to proceed. There are neither legal nor moral reasons and, in fact, Snowden enjoys substantial popular sympathy both in Europe and among American citizens. He is also supported by Amnesty International.[2]

    If Russia sent Snowden back to the US, it would compromise itself and tarnish its image even more. In addition, the American government’s position is not a strong one in this case. Sentiment among the American public is mixed – a lot of people are upset by what Snowden has revealed – so the US authorities are walking a tight rope. Albert Berry, Professor Emeritus of the University of Toronto, has correctly noted that "the US Government probably does not appear very aggressive in this case because their back is weak, so to speak.”[3]

    In the broader context of US-Russia relations, the Snowden affair cannot be seen as significant. Snowden was neither a Russian spy nor has he any proven connections with Russian special services. He is supported by Wikileaks and this, moreover, is a domestic American affair. His case is an emotional one and might temporarily aggravate American-Russian relations but will not have a lasting impact. There are already some signs that both sides have started to see the situation in a more calm and realistic light. [4]

    I do not believe that extraditing individuals such as Snowden would yield an improvement in US-Russia relations and thus aids anti-terrorism activities. Such a political turnabout by the Americans would require a more important reason and at present this seems rather unlikely. Moscow’s submission would serve only to show once again its weakness and vulnerability and might encourage Washington to exert more pressure and make more demands.

    [1] "Russia is Going to Severely Regret Helping Edward Snowden,” Forbes, com June 25, 2013.

    [2] Amnesty International US, "US must not hunt down whistleblower Edward Snowden,” June 24, 2013. According to Widney Brown, Senior Director of International Law and Policy of Amnesty International his forced transfer to the US would put him at great risk of human rights violations and must be challenged.”

    [3] "Why US hasn’t nabbed Edward Snowden Yet,” CBS/Canada, June 25, 2013.

    [4] Obama wants ‘wheel and deal’ for Edward Snowden,” CBS News/World, June 27, 2013.



    Frank Shatz


    The Virginia Gazette

    Russia’s refusal to cooperate could have negative repercussions elsewhere

    This week’s discussion topic touches on the core problem facing both countries. Namely, how to focus on issues that really matter and how to cooperate on solving problems that could destabilize whole regions in the world. In retrospect, the Snowden affair may appear as a mere irritant, but mishandling it could have grave consequences.
    The situation in Syria is a prime example. At the inception of the popular uprising in Syria, most American Middle East experts expected that it would follow the pattern of other Arab Spring uprisings. Which is to say that it would result in the folding of the Bashar al-Assad regime and the emergence of a more acceptable form of authoritarian form of governance.
    As far as I am aware, there was only one American Middle East expert who predicted from the very beginning that members of al-Assad’s Alawite sect would fight to the bitter end to save his regime: Robert Baer, a former CIA case officer with vast experience in the Middle East. In several TV appearances and newspaper columns, he warned the Obama administration about the perils of discounting the Alawites’ determination to save the Assad regime. Not because of their love for him, but to save themselves from slaughter by their Sunni neighbors.
    Robert Worth, a staff member of The New York Times Magazine, recently spent a considerable amount of time among Alawites in various parts of Syria. In a most informative on-the-ground report, "The Price of Loyalty in Syria,” (Sunday, Jun. 23), he provides a fish-eye view of the conflict. The report is a penetrating psychological profile of the beleaguered Alawites. His piece should be required reading in Washington and Moscow. US Secretary of State John Kerry’s appeal to Russians to cooperate in the Snowden affair, simply as America’s "friends”, may be seen by some as disingenuous. In my interviews with Kerry, I found him aloof, wooden and dour. But I found him also deserving of his reputation as being coolly pragmatic. He is not driven by ideology; rather, he is dedicated to advancing stability in the world. I believe John Kerry would work hard to alleviate any damage inflicted to US-Russia relations by the Snowden affair. 


    Patrick Armstrong
    Patrick Armstrong Analysis,
    Ottawa, Canada
    I wasn’t going to attempt an answer to Vlad’s questions because I didn’t know what to think about the Snowden affair. Was he alone? Was he a whistleblower appalled at the realities of the world? Or a spy? A traitor? An opportunist? Was his arrival at Sheremetyevo a clever move in a chess game or a panicked flight? (Edward Jay Epstein, one of the few MSM reporters who is not a "copy typist,” raises some good questions here.)


    All I knew was that he was no longer in Hong Kong and that Putin told us last week that he was in no-man’s-land in Sheremetyevo and hoped he would go away soon. (Few commentators understand that all international airports must have such a limbo lest any stowaway, with his feet on the new country, immediately claim asylum or otherwise initiate other tiresome and expensive legalities). But was he still there or had he moved on? Well we know now he’s still there; Ecuador doesn’t particularly want him; he has asked several countries for asylum. Not such a clever chess game it seems.

    And he has asked Moscow for asylum and it sounds as if he will been granted it. But there’s a condition: Putin has said "If he wants to stay here, there is one condition: He must stop his work aimed at harming our US partners, no matter how strange this may sound coming from me.” So stay, but be silent.” Putin also said there had been no collaboration with Russia’s intelligence services.

    Altogether a very clever solution to Moscow’s and Washington’s mutual problem. After years of observation, I have learned that Putin never gives the lie direct, although he does not answer all questions fully. If he says there was no collaboration with Russian intelligence agencies, I believe him. (And not least because it is highly unlikely that Snowden has anything to tell them that they do not already know. Snowden’s big secret, electrifying the outside world, is the fact and extent of the collecting, not the details collected. Spetssvyazknows all that and does the very same thing.) I also believe that Snowdon’s arrival in transit was a surprise to the Russians and his staying there so long a bigger surprise.

    But Putin has cleverly squared the circle: Snowden is safe, but the further damage he can do to the USA is ended. Everybody should be happy – or at least as happy as is possible in the circumstances.

    So one interesting question to watch will be how Washington takes this. It is the best available result for it: no embarrassing trial (or more embarrassing non-trial) and no more publicity and leaks. (And the possibility of a quiet interview with Snowden when the fuss has calmed down).

    But the most interesting thing to watch will be the anti-Russia mob: will they be able to figure all this out and acknowledge the favour Putin has done Washington? Or will they wind themselves up into another anti-Putin rant? Another learning opportunity for them. And just after Boston too.


    Voice of Russia

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