Taking in Snowden didn't go exactly as the Kremlin had planned.
The Snowden case provides both a reality check and an interesting insight into U.S.-Russia relations. Here are the facts: Edward Snowden, a whistleblower to some and a traitor to others, was certainly not a Russian spy. His arrival at Sheremetyevo International Airport was part of a complicated plan that had gone awry. Snowden was handed off by China, was let down by Ecuador, and then got stuck in Moscow. Russia did not expel Snowden to the United States, but neither did it use him as a propaganda asset by giving him asylum and allowing him to hold press conferences. Moscow’s fragile relationship with Washington was strained as a result, but Russia demonstrated that it is one of the few countries in the world that is prepared to stand up to the United States.
One can only guess at what level a decision was taken in Moscow allowing Snowden to board the Aeroflot flight in Hong Kong bound for Sheremetyevo. It is certainly true that Russia’s state-run media trumpeted the former CIA employee’s revelations — including the details of the PRISM program, the eavesdropping on conversations of G-20 leaders, and the snooping on EU delegations in Washington and New York — as evidence of the "true nature" of U.S. foreign policy, confounding Washington’s claim to the moral high ground. Like Julian Assange and Bradley Manning, Edward Snowden, in the Kremlin’s eyes, has played a useful function in exposing what President Vladimir Putin calls U.S. government hypocrisy.
This is, however, where Russia’s collaboration stopped. Putin may have been sympathetic to helping Snowden reach some safe haven where the United States would not be able to get him, but he was adamant that Russian security services had never tried to "work with him." The Russian president also suggested — unbelievably to many Americans — that Moscow’s price for granting Snowden asylum would be his agreement to stop any further leaks that damaged, as Putin put it, "our American partners." The Kremlin leader does not mind, to say the least, Snowden’s revelations, which cut the U.S. government’s ethical pretensions down to size, but he does not want Russia to serve as a platform for Washington’s current public enemy No. 1 — not eight weeks before President Barack Obama is scheduled to visit Moscow. Putin’s terms were clear: If Snowden agrees to keep mum, he may stay; if he insists on talking, he should leave. The problem, of course, was that no one would take him.
Where does the Snowden case leave us with respect to U.S.-Russia relations? Those Russian officials who were evidently involved in organizing Snowden’s passage from Hong Kong to Latin America via Sheremetyevo probably sought to capitalize on the U.S. government’s embarrassment in compensation for the recently increased U.S. and European criticism of the Kremlin’s policies. The plan, however, went awry. By the time he reached Sheremetyevo, Snowden’s U.S. passport had been revoked, and no promised travel documents from Ecuador had arrived. Russia, which had been meant to be a mere conduit in the operation, suddenly became Snowden’s temporary home.
No one should have expected Moscow to simply hand over the American fugitive to U.S. officials: Russia, after all, is not a U.S. ally. One can easily imagine Putin asking whether, if a "Russian Snowden" turned up at JFK, he or she would be immediately extradited to Moscow — or awarded some freedom prize instead. A rhetorical question. Scores of Russian citizens who have fallen afoul of the Kremlin populate the United States (and the United Kingdom), and Moscow’s demands for their extradition have been routinely rejected.
Moscow had hoped to pay a minimal price for co-organizing Snowden’s passage, but it did not become afraid of Washington when things went wrong. American attempts to pressure the Russians, as Secretary of State John Kerry appeared to do at one point, only hardened their stance. "We never extradite anyone [to the West], and nobody extradites anyone to us," Putin quipped. "At best, we exchange people."
As potential swaps are concerned, the Russians have their wish list ready. It includes the arms dealer Viktor Bout and the commercial pilot Alexander Yaroshenko, both arrested outside the United States, brought to America for trial, and sentenced to long prison terms. Moscow also wants a mutual extradition treaty with the United States, which Washington balks at, ostensibly because the Russian Constitution — like the Constitution of France, a country that has such an agreement with the United States — prohibits extradition of Russian citizens. These are pipe dreams. Obama has publicly refused "barter deals," and the U.S. Congress is unwilling to hand over fugitive Russians, other than common criminals, to their authoritarian government.
The Snowden case has also exposed interesting features and fissures within the non-Western world. Beijing benefited most from the incident because it conveniently blunted Obama’s accusations of Chinese hacking at precisely the time of the meeting between Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping last month. By welcoming Snowden to Hong Kong, the special status of which does not interfere with the Chinese Public Security Ministry’s freedom to operate, Beijing was probably able to look into the laptops Snowden was carrying. Finally, China was able to wash its hands of the whole affair by handing Snowden off to Aeroflot for onward journey. True, it has not escaped all U.S. criticism for its behavior, but the price was slight in comparison to the payoff in both propaganda and intelligence.
The Latin Americans have been more mercurial. Ecuador, which had been expected to deliver travel documents to Snowden so that he could pass through Sheremetyevo, has failed to do so. Bolivia was furious over the treatment of its presidential plane in Europe’s skies, especially since it was not smuggling Snowden out of Moscow. Cuba has been keeping a very low profile throughout, at a time when Raúl Castro is seeking improved relations with the United States in order to help revive the Cuban economy. Of the Latin leftists, that leaves only Venezuela and Nicaragua as potential safe havens. It is now crucial for Moscow that either Caracas or Managua accept Snowden, and do so soon. Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro must have heard that directly from Putin in Moscow 10 days ago. The Russian leader certainly has no interest in keeping the American at Sheremetyevo, as Obama is scheduled to visit Russia in early September.
In hindsight, Russia obviously miscalculated when it allowed Snowden to board the Moscow-bound flight. It then managed to put on a brave face and demonstrated its ability to stand up to the United States by refusing to bow to Washington’s pressure. Unlike China, however, Russia has gained nothing from the Snowden incident. Moreover, it has had to accept the problems that Snowden brought with him. Looking ahead, Snowden’s case will probably not wreck the upcoming U.S.-Russia summit. His stay in Sheremetyevo, however, has definitely contributed to the already charged atmosphere of U.S.-Russia relations. A "repeat of the reset" will not do. The relationship needs new software.