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Russian-U.S. relations caught in a trap

By Dale R. Herspring

Although difficult periods in relations between two countries may not be the fault of either side, they can lead to a downward spiral. This is what Edward Snowden’s presence in Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport in Moscow has done. 

Russian President Vladimir Putin does not like Snowden and would like to be rid of him, but he cannot appear to be giving into American pressure.  The United States continues to apply pressure all over the world to get Snowden back in this country to stand trial for espionage and theft.

From Putin’s standpoint,  Snowden arrived unannounced — “without an invitation.”  Still, he made his exasperation known about Washington’s efforts to intimidate other countries that might have offered Snowden asylum. We have the case of the Bolivian president’s plane being forced to land in Austria so authorities could be sure Snowden was not on board. 

What makes the situation unusual is that Putin has little respect for Snowden or what he did. To some on the left, Snowden may be a hero fighting for human rights. However, for Putin, Snowden is a criminal and a traitor betraying his country. As Putin said in 2010, “Traitors are swine… The lives of traitors always end badly.”

Another reason Putin doesn’t want Snowden in Russia is that it won’t take Snowden long to realize that Russia itself has a bad human rights record. Snowden claims he is fighting against “The U.S. surveillance state.” Wait until he discovers what Russian surveillance is like.

A Russian lawyer who is deeply involved in the human rights struggle there has been advising Snowden. He said that if Snowden gets asylum in Russia, “he will have a fabulous opportunity to continue his human rights activities, including battling against the state’s interference in private lives.” In short, Russia could get far more than it bargained for with Snowden.  Such individuals are fine — when they are raising hell in the United States.

Putin has enjoyed dealing with the United States in recent months. He held the high cards and found a new source of happiness in embarrassing Presi-dent Barack Obama, who has shown that he is increasingly inept at the foreign policy.

However, Putin has begun to realize that while he may not respect Obama, bilateral ties are important. This is why he said, “Bilateral relations, in my opinion, are much more important than squabbles around the activities of the security services.”  That is also why he said asylum is a possibility for Snowden only if he stops harming U.S. interests. “We warned Mr. Snowden that any of his activities that cause damage to U.S.-Russian relations are unacceptable to us,” Putin said.

Putin also expressed confusion about what motivated Snowden.  “He’s a young man… In fact, I do not even really understand how he intends to continue to build his life.  But it was his destiny and his choice.  And we have our national objectives.”

The United States has been driven to get Snowden back.  Washington has warned Latin American countries that offered Snowden asylum (if he can get there) that it is prepared to “pull out the stops” if he is granted asylum. For example, the United States threatened to cease buying Venezuelan oil and enforce a number of sanctions if Venezuela grants Snowden asylum.

White House spokesman Jay Carney called on Moscow to reject Snowden’s request for asylum and to send him back to the United States. Based on Congressional sentiment, the Snowden affair issue could hurt our bilateral relations. Obama is scheduled to visit St. Petersburg in September for the G-20 summit and then meet Putin in Moscow.  However, Obama could cancel the trip to see Putin if the Snowden matter is “not re-solved.” This would be a direct slap at Putin. 

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) has suggested that Obama push to have the G-20 summit moved out of Russia and that the United States boycott the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia. The Russians have put their hearts and souls into these games, and a boycott would be a tremendous embarrassment.

Putin has a choice: eat crow, send Snowden back (and be rid of him) — or sit back and watch U.S.-Russian relations go into the freezer.

Dale R. Herspring, a University Distinguished Professor and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, is a retired U.S. diplomat and Navy captain.

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