Commentary Magazine


U.S.-Russia Relations After Snowden

You can tell the Russian government is enjoying needling the Obama administration over Edward Snowden. Yes, the Putin regime likes the attention it gets, the chance to accuse the West of hypocrisy and to demonstrate Putin’s deft grasp of “whataboutism,” and of course the access to Snowden’s intel. But they seem to take just as much pleasure in publicly taunting an Obama administration it has outfoxed for years now.

Case in point: today Russia finally granted Snowden asylum. It’s a one-year pass for now, but it gets him out of Sheremetyevo airport. This, naturally, has drawn condemnation from the U.S. As long as Snowden’s status was still in limbo, there was at least the possibility that he could be returned to the U.S. to face prosecution for his actions. Snowden is probably more trouble to Putin than he’s worth, and Putin had started to treat Snowden like the guest who won’t leave. So it wasn’t beyond the imagination that Snowden would be sent packing or get caught trying to escape to Latin America.

Not only have the Russians officially ended that charade, but they are telling the Obama administration to just get over it already. As the Wall Street Journal reports:

Kremlin foreign policy aide Yuri Ushakov immediately played down the impact of the decision to harbor Mr. Snowden. “This situation is too insignificant to affect political relations,” he said. He added that the Russian government has received no indication from U.S. officials that the September summit between Messrs. Obama and Putin might be cancelled. He reiterated Mr. Putin’s hope that the incident doesn’t affect relations.

No article on U.S.-Russia relations would be truly complete without a split-the-difference quote from Fyodor Lukyanov, and the Journal provides this one:

Mr. Lukyanov said the Kremlin will be ambivalent about Mr. Snowden as long as he remains in Russia. “Philby and others were all Russian agents, and in those cases, there as [sic] a moral obligation to protect them and do everything for them that they needed,” he said. “But in this case, Snowden didn’t do what he did for Russia. He came here as a surprise, and in the end, Russia will be very much surprised at what damage this did to Russian-American relations.”

This is a surreal aspect to the whole affair. The Obama administration wanted Snowden back when he was leaving Hong Kong. Not only has the White House asked Russia for Snowden’s extradition, but allies in Europe actually grounded the Bolivian president’s plane on the suspicion Snowden was aboard. That’s not exactly subtle. And although it’s a bad idea (as I argued here), Lindsey Graham even spent two days arguing that the U.S. should consider boycotting the 2014 Olympics in the Russian city of Sochi. That is highly unlikely, and surely the Russians know that, but it should have established for the record in crystal clear fashion that yes, the U.S. government is unhappy about this state of affairs.

Putin’s administration is, consciously or not, projecting an insufferable sense of entitlement here. Not only do they want a high-profile American defector all their own, but they’d like to instruct the president of the United States how to feel about it. The advantage of this is that it can easily provoke an overreaction–such as boycotting the Olympics–that would be yet another public-relations fiasco for the Obama administration.

The Obama administration never should have scrapped the Europe-based missile defense plans as a goodwill gesture to Putin, but they would look silly reinstating a missile system over Snowden; the optics of Russia handing Snowden a visa and the U.S. constructing missile silos in response would be a PR gift to Putin. Russia has already been welcomed into the World Trade Organization, though that will benefit the American economy as well, so any WTO-related retaliation would be self-defeating.

So what should President Obama do to show his disapproval? Press Secretary Jay Carney wagged his finger at Russia today, adding that Obama may just decide to cancel on an upcoming Moscow bilateral summit:

Russia’s decision also threatens to derail a planned September summit in Moscow between President Barack Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin, which U.S. officials had viewed as a potential breakthrough moment in a monthslong drive to find common ground with Russia on important foreign-policy aims, such as ending the war in Syria. “We are evaluating the utility of a summit in light of this,” Mr. Carney said, adding that no decision had been made.

The “utility” of such a summit was always in doubt, but the president should begin by following through on this threat. A meeting with Putin over Syria is unlikely to produce much of a breakthrough, and the visual of Obama traveling to Moscow to beseech Putin is not one the president should consider offering at this point. After all, the last time Obama sent Secretary of State John Kerry to meet with Putin, the Russian president sought to humiliate the chief American diplomat.

Beyond that, what the president needs is a change of outlook more than anything. He should be wary of being seen to fire off too many reactions to this one incident at the same time. He doesn’t want to appear erratic and, more importantly, he does not want to give Putin the satisfaction of losing his cool. But the days of the “reset” naïveté are hopefully behind Obama. Putin has spent the last month taunting and insulting the president. Obama should remember that each and every time Putin wants something from here on out. The Olympics will survive this fiasco intact, but Putin’s smug sense of entitlement should not.

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