Despite weeks of diplomatic wrangling, Russia is poised to allow NSA leaker Edward Snowden to leave Moscow’s international airport. And that has U.S. Congressmen on both sides of the political aisle fuming.
For Russia hawks and Obama administration opponents on the Hill, the Kremlin’s defiance represents the latest "I told you so" moment as U.S.-Russian relations reach a new low on everything from Syria to cybercrime to human rights to orphan adoption. But even White House allies in Congress are wondering publicly whether the Snowden affair means that supposedly-reset relationship between Washington and Moscow is falling apart.
"Obviously this is a shame," Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-IL), a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, told The Cable. "It really shows the naivete of the administration in thinking we could become great friends with the Russians who keep stabbing us in the back."
Rep. Tom Marino, (R-PA), who sits on the Foreign Affairs and Homeland Security Committee, went further. "As Russia continues to disrespect the U.S., the Obama Administration only further demonstrates it does not have the skills or the know-how to counter Russia’s anti-America initiatives," he told The Cable.
Others in Congress less interested in taking swipes at the administration, simply grimaced at the Kremlin’s refusal to cooperate on issues crucial to U.S. foreign policy.
"President Putin made it clear that he wouldn’t allow Snowden to undermine his relationship with us," Rep. Eliot Engel (D-NY), ranking member of the Foreign Affairs Committee, told The Cable. "This latest action seems to counter that assertion. Russia has a choice between harboring an indicted fugitive or making an already challenging relationship that much more difficult." Rep. Scott Perry (R-PA) added that Putin continues to exploit "areas of conflict for short-term domestic political gain" rather than "search for common ground with the United States."
Though Snowden hasn’t received final word on temporary asylum status, a Russian immigration official told The Washington Post the deal is imminent. "We’ve seen of course the press reports and are seeking clarification from the Russian government," State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said Wednesday. "Obviously any move that would allow Mr. Snowden to depart the airport would be deeply disappointing."
The Kremlin has pointedly rejected accusations that it’s been anything but cooperative with the White House and State Department. In fact, Russian officials blame Americans for rejecting previous overtures to establish an extradition treaty that would’ve allowed accused criminals like Snowden to be sent back home.
"I would not want to put our American partners in an uncomfortable position, but… it is Washington in the past [that has] categorically rejected numerous Russian proposals to conclude an extradition treaty," an official with Russia’s Foreign Ministry told Interfax on Wednesday, in a statement relayed by Russia’s Washington Embassy. The official went on to say that U.S. officials, including Secretary of State John Kerry, have exaggerated the number of criminals U.S. law enforcement officials previously sent to Russia at its behest. "These cases do not exist," reads a rough translation.
Psaki said Wednesday the precedent for U.S.-Russian cooperation is strong, citing "hundreds" of instances in which Russians were sent over.
Regardless, for Republicans in Congress, the diplomatic fiasco has offered an opportunity to highlight longstanding misgivings about the Obama administration’s reset with Russia. "President Obama’s naiveté in believing the U.S. can simply ‘reset’ diplomatic relations only further illustrates that our president will continue to allow Putin to walk all over him," Marino told The Cable. Sen. John McCain took to Twitter in a similar fashion. "Keep hitting that reset button!" he tweeted.
Of course, proponents of the reset policy point to a number of first-term deals it garnered, including a New Start nuclear weapons treaty and Russia’s entry into the World Trade Organization.
"Things look bleak, but it’s easy to forget that relations between the United States and Russia reached another nadir during the 2008 war in Georgia when there was virtually no contact between the Bush administration and the Russian government," said Andrew Kuchin, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. He noted that besides a New Start treaty, the U.S. also won Russian cooperation on sanctions against Iran and transit issues related to the war in Afghanistan before differences on missile defense, Libya, Syria, the Magnitsky Act and now Snowden muddled the relationship. "I always try to keep my expectations modest with the Russians," he said.