Edward Snowden presents Moscow with an intriguing dilemma. On the one hand, his subversion of surveillance techniques and his role as a whistleblower go against everything that Russian President Vladimir Putin and the clique of former KGB officers around him stand for. On the other hand, of course, his leaks are aimed against the US, and thus a chorus of Russian officials who would find a Russian whistleblower doing the same thing repulsive has been lining up to praise Mr Snowden.
For a week, as Mr Snowden has sat in the transit zone at Sheremetyevo Airport, Mr Putin and other officials have smiled sweetly and told us that the FSB are not bothering him, and that he is a free man who can fly wherever he likes. Other reports, however, have suggested that the Russians have blocked him flying to Ecuador.
Mr Putin’s words on Monday that Mr Snowden could have asylum in Russia if he stops leaking US secrets is a masterstroke – cloaking a gesture that Washington is bound to find outrageous with a veneer of cordial partnership. At the same time we heard that the heads of the FBI and FSB have been ordered by Mr Putin and Barack Obama to keep in constant touch, suggesting a bargain may not be impossible.
It is possible that the FSB have indeed been kept away from Mr Snowden, as the Kremlin may have made a calculation that the whistleblower landing on Russia’s doorstep is more of a political than an intelligence boon. Or perhaps he has spent the last week being carefully debriefed by friendly FSB officers playing good cop-bad cop, slowly wearing him down, making him amenable.
Where Mr Snowden eventually ends up is still an open question, but the skill with which he has been hidden, and the careful management of information about his case that we have seen so far both suggest that the Kremlin is taking an extremely keen interest in the unexpected gift they received when the former NSA contractor stepped off his plane from Hong Kong.
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