What have the U.S. and Russia learned from the Snowden Affair?

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What have the U.S. and Russia learned from the Snowden Affair?
Published 30-07-2013, 09:58

Andrei P. Tsygankov

Andrei P. Tsygankov is professor of International Relations and Political Science at San Francisco State University. His latest book is Russia and the West from Alexander to Putin (Cambridge, 2012).

What have the U.S. and Russia learned from the Snowden Affair?Both nations adjust to the realities of diplomacy in a post-Cold War era.

The Edward Snowden affair has revealed the extreme fragility of U.S.-Russia relations. The crisis over Sergei Magnitsky is barely over, yet there is already a new one unfolding and further undermining the thin layer of goodwill between the two countries. The glimpse of hope sparked by recent efforts of the two countries to cooperate on counter-terrorism, Syria, nuclear security, and other issues may soon turn into another disappointment.

The initial reaction from the United States has not been encouraging. Washington has threatened the full range of retaliatory steps, from cancelling Barack Obama's trip to Moscow to expanding the Magnitsky list and severing economic and military ties with Russia. Some politicians are even willing to gamble on the issue of missile defense for the purpose of blackmailing the Kremlin. For example, there is discussion underway in certain American circles of retracting the offer to cancel the final stage of deploying the system.

From the Russian perspective, it is clear that the Snowden issue is not a minor one for the United States. At stake is national pride as well as the right to defend itself against terrorism using the new cyber technology of screening private accounts, phone calls and correspondence.

Yet, it is unclear why the issue has been elevated to such prominence as to threaten Russia and risk other important issues. Whether or not Russia gives Snowden asylum, why should it fundamentally affect the two sides' relationships? Washington on multiple occasions denied Russia's request to extradite its own defectors to the United States. The Kremlin hasn't forgotten it but chose not to prioritize the issue.

Besides, it is clear that the U.S. has nothing to gain from attempting to pressure Russia into submission, except additional humiliation and loss of face in the eyes of the world. American politicians should have learned that the policy of public threats only serves to harden Russian anti-Americanism. They should have also noticed the world's growing anti-Americanism, from which the Kremlin can gain additional prestige.

The Kremlin so far has not made too much of an issue even though it may have initially tried to leverage Snowden's arrival to Moscow as a "transit passenger."

Despite the view taken by some Russian human rights activists, the Kremlin seems to understand that exposing the U.S. government as a violator of human rights is risky and inconsistent with Russia's own use of a similar computer technology monitoring citizens' Internet activities. The Kremlin also doesn't want to make too much of the sovereignty issue and is looking for a way out of the Snowden crisis without necessarily offending the United States.

Russia seems to have learned the lesson that assertion of sovereignty should be balanced by awareness of responsibility for preserving security and stability in the world. Although Russian public opinion favors political asylum for Snowden, the Kremlin does not want the issue to become an additional irritant in the two countries' relations.

Putin has made it abundantly clear that he prefers Snowden to leave and that provoking the already strong anti-Russian sentiments within the American political class is not his priority.

Perhaps the lesson for the United States is to tone down its rhetoric and extradition demands, give diplomacy a chance to find a compromise on Snowden, and concentrate on other important global and bilateral issues with Russia.

The two sides need each other, but are yet to profit from the existing capital of potentially beneficial ties. Paralyzed by mutual mistrust, they continue to miss opportunities of moving past the residual Cold War agenda by strengthening international cooperation.

It is time to learn to live by the new rules of the post-Cold War world in which Washington's wishes aren't necessarily going to be granted by others. In such a scenario, Russia may be a difficult but a necessary partner.



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