Whistleblower Blues Snowden Puts US-Russia Ties On Ice

Edward Snowden has asked for the Kremlin's help to avoid arrest by US authorities. The case is a godsend for President Vladimir Putin because it is distracting from domestic Russian problems. But it will worsen the country's already strained ties with America.

DPA/ Human Rights Watch

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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.

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Photo Gallery: Timeline of the NSA Spying Scandal
Even the headlines of Russian news agencies were rather misleading. "Snowden Meets with Human Rights Advocates at Moscow Airport" -- made it sound as if the former intelligence contractor for America's National Security Agency (NSA) and current crusader against Internet surveillance had formed an alliance with Kremlin opponents. But, in reality, they were only meant to serve as props aimed at concealing the Kremlin's involvement.

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."

Translated from the German by Josh Ward

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peterboyle.4848 07/15/2013
1. Getting Hilarious
Everything Snowden has is going to come out eventually. As more comes out it is becoming clear that many (if not most) major Security Services not only knew about it, but also made their own contributions so they could get data from the Americans under the Legal table. This particular Genie will not go back in the bottle, so the question is: What will we The People do about it? The most likely answer, based on prior experience, is NOTHING. Anyone who is at all aware already suspected that this was happening. Anyone who has seen a modern Spy or Action movie must have wondered just how much of that 'computer stuff' was real. On top of that, there has been no proof put forward that all this data mining has prevented a single Terror Incident. These Security Agencies have to go to Contractors and the "Hacker Community" to find qualified people to set up and run these systems, and Snowden is the result of that gamble. Most knowledgable 'geeks' beleive in a free and open internet and World Wide Web. They are also pretty idealistic. While they may love living in Hawaii and making $129,000 per year to do what they did for free before, they are also prone to standing up for their core beliefs - a free and open internet, real democracy, and the rights of the People. This has now become a political game with every politician positioning themselves to come out on the 'winning' side. Snowden is safest in Russia, but what he took is not on his person, so Russia will not control him if they give him safe harbor for a while. They know that, Snowden knows that, and I'm sure the US also knows that. What Snowden took is stashed somewhere safe from discovery, and quite possibly distributed in several locations with a few trusted people holding keys to retreive it if something happened to Snowden. Eventually all promises are broken and all that Snowden has will come out. In 6 months Snowden will be a trivia question, and everything will be back to 'normal'. There is absolutley nothing that can be done about the data mining, and any promises are vaporware. The Net and WWW can not be policed, controlled, or completely surveyed. Simple off-the-shelf programs can easily thwart surveilance, and since Snowden made the news more are being developed that are even better. The 'needle' that Security Services is not in the 'haystack' they are looking at, there is a Dark Web that confounds even the NSA's abilities to crack. The Dark Web is where the 'geeks' play with hacking, encryption, and infiltration tools (programs) trading them back and forth.
Babeouf 07/15/2013
2. Putin's game
Surely the most extraordinary response to Snowden's revelations has come from the German government. Discovering that the entire German population is being spied on. And that every German company has had its confidentiality compromised. The German government offers a supine acceptance of the facts. Showing that Germany is in effect still an occupied power. It is clear then why the US government favours EU membership for all(including Turkey). Germany will establish its hegemony within the EU. And the US will continue its occupation of Germany.
asafult 07/15/2013
3. Wrong Target
The most important way to protect secrets in to not disclose them to people who do not need to know them. It therefore follows that the people who disclosed these secrets to Mr. Snowden are the people who compromised their security, not Mr. Snowden ... and they had no business being "in the cloud" in the first place unless they were encrypted in unbreakable codes. In case of a breach like this, the highest level government officials involved are the ones guilty of espionage and they are the ones who should be arrested and proscecuted, not Mr. Snowden. The purpose of the country's security laws is to protect the security of the country, not to protect high government officials from arrest and prosecution for their own criminal and otherwise illegal activity. The release of the information that the US government officials are most purturbed about is the information exposing their own criminal activity that should never have been classified in the first place.
boonteetan 07/16/2013
4. Putin v Snowden
To former KGB veteran Putin, Snowden might be seen as a threat and a liability. Putin knows too well what Snowden could do to Russian security if he remains in the country. Hence, he must leave.
techno 07/16/2013
5. Hilarious peterboyle?
Maybe not but you are certainly right that this huge data suck is not going to accomplish anything useful. Stasi using typewriters and tape recorders was probably FAR more effective. The problem is not that NSA etc. cannot gather large amounts of information. They can. But for the information to be useful, someone must ask interesting questions—precisely the sort of questions the security bureaucrats cannot even ask themselves. After all, with all its intelligence gathering bought at high expense, the CIA etc. missed the fall of the Berlin Wall. These same people claimed in the 1980s that the Warsaw Pact was growing economically by over 3% a year—a lie that could be easily disproven in ten minutes by anyone who actually traveled to the East. The intelligence services got it wrong because they wanted an outcome that didn't exist. It is obvious that the "security services" have no known function except as a job program for the more useless members of the Leisure Classes. Want less of their foolishness?—cut their budgets. There is no other answer.
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