Vladimir Putin once again appeared not to know what was happening in the Edward Snowden affair unfolding in the capital of his own country. It was last Friday, shortly before 5 p.m. local time in Moscow. The news about the American whistle-blower's application for asylum was making the rounds.
The computer expert had invited 13 representatives of "human rights organizations" to the transit area of the city's Sheremetyevo airport, where he has been stranded since flying from Hong Kong to Moscow on June 23. He told his select audience that he would like to stay in Russia, and would apply for asylum to do so, until he was permitted to travel on to one of the Latin American countries that have offered or considered granting him asylum.
Meanwhile, Putin was outside the capital on a visit to Belgorod. The city lies about 600 kilometers (370 miles) south of Moscow, which isn't very far considering the country's vastness. But those around Putin gave off the impression of being surprised. "We regrettably had no chance to review the announcement," Putin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters by telephone.
Moscow-based lawyers and politicians close to the government had already been in close contact by phone on Thursday. At that point, it was already clear that Snowden would stay in Russia. Likewise, it's hard to imagine that Snowden could have gotten out the invitations to his meeting at the Moscow airport without Russian help.
Orchestrated by the Kremlin
In fact, among the invited guests were not only activists such as Tanya Lokshina of Human Rights Watch and the prominent Russian lawyer Genri Reznik, but also a man like Vyacheslav Nikonov. This grandson of Stalin's long-serving Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov is also a member of parliament with Putin's United Russia party and a heavyweight within foreign-policy circles. Nikonov had received Snowden's invitation at the email address of one of the political foundations he belongs to. But Nikonov would have never crossed Snowden's mind without the prompting of Russian officials.
Given these facts, it wasn't difficult to discern the Kremlin's handwriting -- and the fact that it was Putin's government, rather than Snowden himself, that had orchestrated the latter's appearance. It was the first time that Snowden had emerged from the depths of the airport since arriving over three weeks earlier. He was sporting a gray shirt, jeans and parted hair. The asylum application was missing only a signature. And, according to sources who attended the meeting, Snowden also uttered the key words: "No actions I take or plan are meant to harm the US I want the US to succeed." Of course, this had been precisely the deal that Putin had offered on July 1, when he said: "If (Snowden) wants to stay here, there is one condition: He must stop his activities aimed at inflicting damage on our American partners, no matter how strange it may sound coming from my lips." And it was also Putin's gesture of appeasement toward the Americans.
The next chapter in the Edward Snowden drama has begun. On July 2, Putin spokesman Peskov announced that the 30-year-old had withdrawn his request for asylum after Putin had laid out his terms. But now everything has suddenly changed. In the statement he read at his appearance on Friday, Snowden thanked Venezuela, Bolivia, Nicaragua and Ecuador for their willingness to offer "support and asylum." Since his passport has been revoked, he is not allowed to leave Sheremetyevo airport, Snowden continued. So, in order to regain at least some freedom of movement, he said he has been forced to ask Russia for asylum.
Moscow is Snowden's Best Option For Now
Temporary asylum until he can continue his journey to Latin America? Officials in Moscow had looked into this possibility early on. While Putin was still playing aloof, Sergey Naryshkin, chairman of Russia's lower house of parliament and a former Kremlin chief of staff, piped in, saying that granting Snowden asylum was permitted by Russia's constitution and laws, and that it would comply with international legal norms. Naryshkin also said that he thought there was a "very high risk" that the alleged traitor would face the death penalty if American authorities ever got their hands on him. "We simply don't have the right to allow something like that to happen," he added.
The question is: Why was it claimed on July 2 that Snowden had turned down Putin's first conditional offer? The likely answer is that Snowden only recently realized that, at the moment, Moscow is still the best of all the options open to him. By now, he will have surely had contact with Russian officials. And they will have undoubtedly tried to convince him of this fact. Flights from Sheremetyevo to Latin America have seemed risky, especially after a plane ferrying Bolivian President Evo Morales from Moscow to La Paz was forced to land in Vienna -- most likely due to pressure from the Americans because they suspected Snowden was on the plane.
Meanwhile, countries like Bolivia and Ecuador -- both of which have offered him asylum -- are too small and weak to ensure Snowden's safety. But one could hardly imagine that Washington would send elite military units into the territory of Russia, a fellow nuclear heavyweight, in order to fetch him back to America.
Putin knows that. And Snowden does, too.
However, like the Americans, President Putin will have also carefully weighed the benefits and drawbacks of his current strategy for dealing with Snowden.
Putin Has Been Exploiting Snowden Storm
For the Kremlin, which has been under attack for both its domestic and foreign policies ever since Putin started his third term as president in May 2012, Snowden is a godsend. Putin has been exploiting the storm kicked up by the fugitive computer expert to draw attention away from his own problems, such as Russia's stagnating economy and the hard line he is taking against the opposition, which is weakening public support for him in the country's major cities. Fresh turmoil might be on the horizon this week, when a verdict is expected in the embezzlement trial of Alexei Navalny, a popular anti-corruption blogger and leading figure in Russia's opposition movement. Prosecutors are seeking a six-year prison sentence in what is widely viewed as a politically motivated case.
The US data scandals have allowed Russia to shift the focus away from its own actions and onto how Americans treat their own opponents -- first with WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange; then with Pfc. Bradley Manning, the source of the WikiLeaks information who has already been in jail for over three years; and now with Snowden. The Russian government's message is: compared with what our American counterparts are getting up to, we're choirboys.
And the majority of Russians actually do see things this way and, at least for now, the Snowden affair has brought their deeply divided society closer together. Whether conservative or liberal, anti- or pro-American, Putin supporter or opponent -- they have all voiced support for granting Snowden asylum.
'Putin is The Hero of Our Time'
Alexander Sidyakin, a parliamentarian for Putin's United Russia party and an anti-Western hard-liner, has said he would like to nominate Snowden for the Nobel Peace Prize. The Russian mass-circulation tabloid daily Komsomolskaya Pravda ("Truth of the Komsomol") has even penned a song gushing with praise. "Putin is the hero of our time. The world loves this Russia, which is capable of withstanding all pressure." Putin, it continues, had shown leadership in brushing aside all considerations, such as whether it would be worth "claiming a reward for Snowden" or whether America could harm Russia.
But the Kremlin is playing a risky game. Putin is trying to convince his people that Russia continues to be a superpower standing on an equal footing with the United States. But, at the same time, he has to worry about letting Moscow's relations with Washington deteriorate further. The countries' presidents are supposed to meet for a summit in the Russian capital in September. Although Putin views Obama as weak, he still doesn't want the meeting to be cancelled on account of Snowden.
At the moment, Putin is holding the better hand, especially since America wants more from Russia than Moscow wants from Washington. Obama needs the Eastern superpower for a number of things: to serve as a transit country for US soldiers withdrawing from Afghanistan; to help solve the problems with Syria and Iran; and to reach the ambitious disarmament goals that he outlined during the recent G-8 summit in Northern Ireland.
Comfortable Forex Reserves
Besides, Russia can rest easy for a number of reasons: It has the fourth-largest foreign currency reserves in the world, worth some 400 billion ($520 billion). And in 2012, its trade with the US was worth $40 billion -- just a quarter of its trade volume with the much smaller Germany.
Nikonov, the parliamentarian invited to Friday's meeting, played down the impact of the Snowden case on relations between the two countries. "There have been so many spying scandals between our countries," he said. Relations would eventually sort themselves back out, he continued, also pointing out that the Americans have never handed over a Russian defector.
Nevertheless, the Americans insist that Putin turn Snowden over. On Friday, Obama spokesman Jay Carney repeated US demands for Russia to do so, saying: ""We have a history of effective law enforcement cooperation with Russia we believe Mr. Snowden ought to be expelled from Russia and to make his way home to the United States." President Obama also reportedly telephoned Putin in person on Friday and addressed Snowden's request for asylum.
Washington is taking a dimmer view of Russian-American relations than Moscow at present. On Friday, Carney criticized Russia, saying that "providing a propaganda platform for Mr. Snowden runs counter to the Russian government's previous declarations of Russia's neutrality (and is) also incompatible with Russian assurances that they do not want Mr. Snowden to further damage US interests."
Risk of Escalation
Fiona Hill, a Russia expert at the Washington-based Brookings Institution, said in late June that the Russians are "making everything they can of this opportunity to show the United States up in the global field of public relations," according to the Associated Press. This is particularly dangerous, she continued, because relations between the two countries were in difficult phase and there was a big risk of an escalation and confrontation, she said.
There is also outrage in the US Congress -- from both sides of the political divide. "Allies are supposed to treat each other in decent ways," Democratic Senator Chuck Schumer of New York told CNN in late June, "and Putin always seems almost eager to put a finger in the eye of the United States, whether it is Syria, Iran and now of course with Snowden." He also predicted that these actions would have "serious consequences" for US-Russian relations.
Lindsey Graham, his Republican colleague from South Carolina, sounded even more bellicose. "I hope we'll chase (Snowden) to the ends of the earth, bring him to justice and let the Russians know there'll be consequences if they harbor this guy," Graham told Fox News Sunday on the same day.
And what did German Interior Minister Hans-Peter Friedrich have to say on the matter? While in Washington on Friday for talks about the NSA program, Friedrich voiced his backing of the Americans and once again tried to temper the outrage in his own country over the NSA's comprehensive surveillance activities -- the very practice that Snowden had made public. In an interview with SPIEGEL ONLINE last Wednesday, Friedrich said that it "annoys" him when some in Germany criticize the US without having exact knowledge of the situation. ""That is not fair," he said. "Without the information from the US and the good collaboration with the intelligence agencies, we most likely would not have been able to prevent terrorist attacks in Germany."
Friedrich declined to further discuss the fate of the whistle-blower stranded in Russia or his asylum negotiations. However, he said he didn't believe "that Moscow is the place where one can defend freedom and the Internet particularly well."