20 years under Putin: a timeline

The story of Edward Snowden, a former contractor of the US National Security Agency who is stuck in Russia after leaking details of several top-secret US and British surveillance programs to the press, throws into relief the deadlock of Russian-American relations. A lover of truth has dropped from the sky onto the Kremlin’s head, and he’s interfering with the relationship between Moscow and Washington. Political analyst Tatyana Stanovaya explains Putin’s interests in Snowden’s case.




From the moment Edward Snowden’s plane landed at the Moscow Sheremetyevo airport, the Kremlin took an extremely detached position on his case. Vladimir Putin’s first statement on the subject was sufficiently vague. Confirming that Snowden was in the transit area of ​​the Sheremetyevo airport, he noted that the former US National Security Agency contractor did not cross the Russian border. Putin also said that Russia was ready to grant Snowden political asylum only if he would cease harming the interests of the United States.

In addition to Russia, a number of Latin American countries have also stated that they are willing to accept Snowden. Among the most likely candidates are Venezuela, Bolivia, Nicaragua, and Ecuador. However, even those governments, which have demonstrated clear anti-American sentiment, were in no hurry to make a decision. Their concern was not that such a move threatens to worsen their relations with the United States. Rather, the problem is technical in nature: how to remove Snowden without jeopardizing his life, while ensuring that the people who help him leave Russia are safe?

Although there’s been an overall cooling of relations between Moscow and Washington, the Kremlin’s current position cannot yet be called anti-American, despite poisonous rhetoric and sluggish dialogue on a number of standard bilateral issues. However, now that Snowden has unexpectedly dropped from the sky and onto Putin’s head, the president is forced to make a decision, taking into account a number of factors, three of which are key.

The first key factor: the need to save face in front of the Kremlin’s “patriots” in a time of growing anti-Americanism in Russia. Over the past two years, the regime has made a concerted effort to convince the Russian people that the US administration harbors hostile intentions toward Russia. The term “State Department” has become a household word: the liberal press and the opposition often sarcastically refer to “bribability for cookies” to mock the official propaganda (I remind the reader of an episode of the propaganda documentary Anatomy of a Protest, in which the opposition was accused of serving the political interests of the United States, as well as attracting participants to protest demonstrations in exchange for a cookie).

The group of “patriots” in power demands that Putin be loyal to Snowden, who has become a symbol of heroism and self-sacrifice in the struggle against “American imperialism” for some members of the Russian elite.

The propaganda campaign to discredit the United States has already produced results. According to recent reports from the Levada Center, 38% of Russians consider the United States to be the country most hostile to Russia. In a 2012 survey on the same subject, the winner was Georgia (at 41%, while the US ranked second with 35%). In response to the question “What is your overall attitude toward the United States now?” 51% of Russians gave the answer “positive,” and 38% said “negative.”

Other sociological data is also indicative. The overwhelming majority of Russians support a ban on the adoption of Russian orphans by US citizens, as well as a law requiring NGOs to register as “foreign agents.” This law is actively promoted in the pro-government media as a tool to fight American influence in Russia.

In this context, the group of “patriots” in power demands that Putin be loyal to Snowden, who has become a symbol of heroism and self-sacrifice in the struggle against “American imperialism” for some members of the Russian elite. Even human rights activists from the President’s Human Rights Council (HRC) who are loyal to the Kremlin defended Snowden. The chairman of the National Anti-Corruption Committee and member of the HRC, Kirill Kabanov, proposed that the council ask the president to grant Snowden asylum. He was supported by pro-Kremlin lawyer Anatoly Kucherena. This proposal did not, however, garner consensus in the HRC, where the majority of members still maintain relative autonomy from the government. The head of the HRC, Mikhail Fedotov, said that he was not prepared to support this initiative. Human rights ombudsmanVladimir Lukin said that he considers the presence of former CIA agent Edward Snowden in Russian territory to be a provocation stating, “China’s problem became [Russia’s] problem” (some observers speculate that Snowden is a Chinese spy).

In this situation, Putin cannot fully ignore the sentiments of the conservative factions of the elite and society. He is forced to send signals that are at least not irritating to the Russian “hawks” who dream of making Snowden a national hero by granting him citizenship and giving him a more comfortable living environment.

The second factor in Putin’s position is his reluctance to exacerbate tensions in the bilateral relations between Russia and the United States. Moscow’s strategic interest lies in forcing the US to take Russia’s interests into full account. almost importantly, there is the problem of missile defense: the Kremlin has so far failed to persuade Washington to provide a legally binding guarantee that the US missile defense system will not be used against Russia. The two countries have actively discussed this issue: the recent meeting between Vladimir Putin and Barack Obama at the G8 summit brought positive results. There is no doubt that if Russian authorities harbored even a hope of softening the US position on missile defense, anti-American rhetoric would diminish noticeably.

In the present situation, it’s likely that Moscow’s desire to get rid of Snowden as fast as possible will become its first priority. But it must be done in such a way that, on the one hand, the offender is safe, and on the other, he is not handed over to the US.

It is also necessary to take into account the fear among Russia’s elite of outside influence in Russian politics. The Kremlin’s very existence is based on the fact that the US initially aimed to change the regime, and the result of this today is a paranoid fear of any US participation in Russia’s civic life. Mostly, it concerns nonprofit organizations.

The Kremlin is attempting to solve these challenges with “Putin’s methods.” Feeling that relations with the US have stalled, Moscow provoked the anti-American wave of public sentiment. However, this effort was intended to be more “reactive” than aggressive; the Kremlin is not aiming to escalate relations with Washington. Strange as it may sound, Putin is guided by the logic of “do not do to others what you do not want them to do to you.” In other words, the Kremlin actually wants to get rid of Snowden quickly, and does not wish to give him permanent political asylum or provide him moral, political, or any other kind of support.

Finally, the third factor influencing Putin’s position is his desire to portray Russia as a strong world power capable of making decisions contrary to US interests. Helping the US and refusing to give Snowden political asylum could be regarded as a sign of weakness, and Putin does not like that. Therefore, Washington should not expect too much assistance from Russia in this matter.

So, what can Russia do, taking these three key factors into account? In the present situation, it’s likely that Moscow’s desire to get rid of Snowden as fast as possible will become its first priority. But it must be done in such a way that, on the one hand, the offender is safe, and on the other, he is not handed over to the United States.

Now Snowden needs time: time to obtain help from one of the Latin American countries, and time to find a path out of Russia in order to take political asylum in said country. During this period, Moscow will be playing a game of subterfuge: Of course, the Kremlin will be aware of every step Snowden takes, but it has to pretend that the Russian secret service knows nothing about him; the United States, of course, will request the relevant information, and the Kremlin will be lying a lot. Meanwhile, Putin will continue trying to distance the country from the situation, making it clear to the world that Russia will not play a significant role in Snowden’s life.

Snowden’s story is the best measure of the state of Russian-American relations today: Russia, for all its anti-American rhetoric and policy, is not going to fully protect the enemies of the United States. The Kremlin has made it clear that the choice of Russian territory for the transit of US enemies is not the best solution. Moscow is trying to avoid a violent conflict, but it is not going to concede to the US. At the moment, Russia’s strategy is based on a small, sabotaging tactics, and the authorities are crossing their fingers that these don’t result in future Russian-American hostilities.