There was a time – not confined to the Cold War – when a US citizen possessing highly classified information would have been welcomed with open arms in Moscow and showered with honours. This time it is all a bit different.
It is hard to escape the impression that, when Edward Snowden arrived at Sheremetyevo airport from Hong Kong, the Russian authorities saw his presence as more of an embarrassment than a propaganda coup.
The low-key confirmation from Moscow that Mr Snowden had applied for “temporary” asylum was of a piece with the Kremlin’s approach thus far – and it is tempting to ask why. Today’s Russia is as adept at playing the spying game as the old Soviet Union, Anna Chapman being only the most egregious example. Whether Russia was hurt not to be Mr Snowden’s first choice of refuge, or uncomfortably aware that a situation could arise where the roles were reversed – a Russian citizen, say, prepared to spill top-secret beans in Washington – the official response has been cautious.
That Mr Snowden has applied just for “temporary” asylum suggests not only that he does not want to stay in Russia for ever, but that the feeling is mutual. As the recent detention of the Bolivian President’s plane illustrated, though, there are big practical difficulties for him to get from A to B. The US has activated all the levers of pressure at its disposal. If Mr Snowden is to be granted asylum elsewhere, protracted negotiation would seem to lie ahead.
President Obama may draw most comfort from the present state of affairs, as Russia – for once – seems more concerned about keeping relations with Washington sweet than scoring political points. In the end, though, the US will be satisfied with only one outcome: the return of Mr Snowden. The dilemma for Moscow is as sharp now as it was when this inconvenient guest landed.