Russia’s granting of asylum to Edward Snowden may have ended nearly six weeks in airport limbo for the man who leaked some of America’s most sensitive intelligence gathering programmes. But it has further poisoned the already severely strained relations between Moscow and Washington.
By allowing Mr Snowden to remain in Russia for at least a year, the Kremlin has effectively thumbed its nose at the US, which had demanded his extradition. Assurances by aides of President Vladimir Putin that the affair was “too insignificant” to damage ties will only have added to the anger of the Obama administration, despite an icy show of indifference to a man dismissed by the US president as a “29-year-old hacker.”
In a first response, the White House said it was “evaluating” the value of a summit with Russia, a clear hint that it could scrap plans for President Barack Obama to meet Mr Putin in Moscow, ahead of September’s G-20 summit in St Petersburg. Another casualty could be the scheduled meeting here later this month of the two countries’ foreign and defence ministers. Foreign policy hardliners however were far less circumspect. Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, a Republican national security spokesman, said the Kremlin’s move “could not be more provocative,” and proved Mr Putin’s lack of respect for President Obama. It should be “a game changer” in the US relationship with Russia, Mr Graham said, as he urged a “firm response” from Congress and the administration.
Not of course that things were well between the US and Russia before the Snowden affair. Ties were severely strained when Congress passed the Magnitsky Bill, that placed some Russian officials on a watch list, and symbolised the US criticism of Moscow’s human rights record. Mr Putin responded, pushing through legislation barring the adoption of Russian children by American families.
Even before that, the two countries were – and remain – at sharp odds on Syria, as Russia sent arms to the Assad regime and blocked substantial action by the UN Security Council. The once-envisaged Syrian peace conference, to have been jointly sponsored by Russia and the US, now seems a distant prospect. Even more distant is the attempted “reset” of relations by the previous Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Most telling of all perhaps was the meeting between Putin and Obama at June’s G-8 summit in Northern Ireland – a chilliness neither man concealed.
Whatever happens next, the Kremlin is likely to regard its handling of the case as a big success. For once Russia has been able to portray itself on the side of openness and individual rights. By his own admission, Mr Snowden would have preferred to have taken refuge in Latin America – Bolivia, Nicaragua and Venezuela had indicated they’d welcome him.
Apart from the difficulties posed by Mr Snowden’s lack of a passport and his confinement in the airport transit zone, all three appeared to be having cold feet – giving nationalistic Mr Putin the opportunity to show that he was willing to defy the former superpower rival.
As it happens, Snowden’s asylum comes as sympathy for his cause, if not his methods, is if anything growing here. Mr Obama held talks with a group of Senators worried about the NSA’s seemingly unlimited data gathering.
That meeting came days after the Republican-controlled House – which might have been expected to take an uncompromising view of national security – only narrowly rejected a proposal to halt funding for the agency’s controversial programmes, as libertarian Republicans made common cause with an overwhelming majority of Democrats.