Whistle-blower Edward Snowden has been granted temporary asylum in Russia. He had been marooned at the transit area of Moscow's Sheremetyevo airport since his arrival there on June 23. On August 1 he received the papers issued by the Russian Immigration Service, which give him permission to live, work and travel in Russia for a year. The permission can be renewed annually. At present Snowden has been relocated to a «safe place».
The U.S. had demanded that Russia send Snowden home to face prosecution for espionage, but President Vladimir Putin dismissed the request. There are voices raised in the US saying the move could worsen the already strained U.S.-Russia ties and put in question a planned summit of the two countries' presidents. The fact that Washington is even issuing such a threat underscores the fact that the concern is great enough to face potentially damaging implications resulting from failure to cooperate with Russia on thorny global issues just because of a hacker seeking to escape the US prosecution.
US official response
White House spokesman Jay Carney confirmed that the White House was «extremely disappointed» by Russia's decision to grant Edward Snowden asylum and was «evaluating the utility» of a Russian-American summit that was supposed to take place in Moscow this autumn. At the same time, Carney confirmed that President Obama didn’t want the Snowden issue to harm broader bilateral relations. So for the first time Mr. Carney directly acknowledged that the administration was considering pulling out of a planned September summit meeting in Moscow between President Barack Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin, which is scheduled to come ahead of a Group of 20 meeting in St. Petersburg. The Obama administration stopped short of announcing immediate punitive measures. «This move by the Russian government undermines a longstanding record of law enforcement cooperation, cooperation that has recently been on the upswing since the Boston Marathon bombings», Carney added.
US congress members and experts address the issue
Democrat Senator Chuck Schumer (D., N.Y.), an ally of Mr. Obama, said Russia's decision was a «stab in the back» and urged the president to recommend relocating the G20 summit away from Russia. «Russia's stabbed us in the back and every day that Snowden is allowed to be free they twist the knife further», he told reporters, «Now that Snowden has been set free, I don't think the G-20 should be meeting in Russia and I think we should not participate if they do».
Maryland Rep. C.A. «Dutch» Ruppersberger, the top Democrat on the House intelligence committee, called the asylum decision a «slap in the face to the United States». But he said the U.S. is in a tough spot because it needs Russian cooperation on issues, including addressing the bloodshed in Syria.
«It's pretty bad», says Ariel Cohen, a Russia expert at the Heritage Foundation. «U.S.-Russia relations are at their nadir, rock bottom since the end of the Cold War».
John Bolton, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations under President George W. Bush, says Russian anti-American policies show the failure of Obama's «appeasement policy» toward Russia. As long as U.S. policy is conciliatory toward Russia, the more concessions Russian leaders will push to deny the U.S. national missile defense capability, to expand Russian influence in nations of the former Soviet Union and to counter U.S. intent in the Middle East and Iran. «They're advancing their interests at our expense», Bolton says. «We're pressing the reset button and they're pressing us».
House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, D-Md., said that Russia's providing Snowden asylum is «not a positive event in the relations between our two countries». But he would not comment on whether Obama should go through with the coming talks between the two countries.
Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, said in a statement Thursday that «this action is a setback to U.S.-Russia relations». «Edward Snowden will potentially do great damage to U.S. national security interests and the information he is leaking could aid terrorists and others around the world who want to do real harm to our country. Russia must return Snowden to face trial at home».
US Senator John McCain is furious about whistleblower Edward Snowden’s newly-acquired asylum, and is demanding that Washington re-examine its relations with Moscow and «strip away the illusions that many Americans have had about Russia». Following the news of Snowden’s one-year asylum status in Russia, McCain released an angry statement in which he condemns the «disgraceful» actions of President Vladimir Putin. «Russia’s action today is a disgrace and a deliberate effort to embarrass the United States», the Senator said. «It is a slap in the face of all Americans. Now is the time to fundamentally rethink our relationship with Putin’s Russia. We need to deal with the Russia that is, not the Russia we might wish for». McCain urged Americans to take action against Russia and seek «repercussions» for granting the 30-year-old whistleblower temporary political asylum. He proceeded to describe the steps the US should take to penalize Moscow in ways unrelated to the Snowden case. «The first thing we should do is significantly expand the Magnitsky Act list to hold accountable the many human violators who are still enjoying a culture of impunity in Russia», he said. «We should push for the completion of all phases of our missile defense programs in Europe, and move expeditiously on another round of NATO expansion, including the Republic of Georgia», McCain added, referring the missile defense system that Russian officials consider an obstacle to cooperation on nuclear arms reductions. The Senator is using the Snowden’s case to launch a campaign aimed at drastic turn of US policy towards Russia as a whole, «Today’s action by Putin’s Russia should finally strip away the illusions that many Americans have had about Russia the past few years», he said. «We have long needed to take a more realistic approach to our relations with Russia, and I hope today we finally start». I think the McCain’s reaction is really important because in his statement obviously made in a fit of temper he actually confirms that the Magnitsky List served as a tool to exert pressure on Russia since the very start, he also acknowledges the European missile defense is aimed at Russia, not Iran. Otherwise why expand the system to punish Russia, if Iran is the target?
Snowden's father, Lon Snowden, said he believes his son should stay put for the moment in an interview with NBC News' Jim Maceda via satellite from Washington on July 1. «Were it me, given the action of the State Department, the Justice Department, I would stay in Russia — as they have the ability to withstand the obvious pressure that has been exerted by the State Department to have my son returned to the U.S». His father was skeptical of how his son would be treated if he came home. «Given the climate and the vitriol of so many members of Congress, I don't think there's the possibility that today he could receive a fair trial here». He added, «I am thankful for both the courage and strength of the Russian people… They have kept my son safe».
The Senate already had been working on sanctions against any country prepared to help Snowden avoid extradition to the United States. The measure, introduced just a few days ago by Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., demands that the State Department coordinate with lawmakers on setting penalties against nations offering Snowden asylum. The Senate panel backed Graham's proposal without objections.
It is important to note what few in the USA pay attention to. Sometime before the asylum was granted, Russia’s President Putin had said Edward Snowden has been warned against taking any actions that would damage relations between Moscow and Washington. His pledge to keep away from damaging the United States is a condition for granting asylum and Mr. Snowden has accepted that. There is no extradition agreement between the two states, so Russia sticks to international law and its national legal norms.
Kremlin foreign-policy aide Yuri Ushakov has played down the impact of the decision to harbor Mr. Snowden. «This situation is too insignificant to affect political relations», he said. He added that the Russian government has received no indication from U.S. officials that the September summit between Obama and Putin might be canceled. He repeated that President Putin’s hopes that the incident doesn't affect the relations. The Russian stance also takes into consideration the opinion of common people. In the July 31 poll published by Moscow's Levada Center, 43% of Russians said the government should grant Mr. Snowden political asylum, while 29% said the government should deny his request. In the poll, 51% of respondents viewed Mr. Snowden positively. It is propitious to note here, that in the U.S., 55% of Americans said Mr. Snowden is a whistleblower, rather than a traitor, according to a national opinion poll released on August 1 by Quinnipiac University. By and large the common people of our countries think alike. With all the sympathy Russian people have for the American nation as a whole, they don’t approve the US government’s attitude towards Snowden who is seen a human rights defender brave enough to defy the powers that be involved in global wrongdoing. The Russian government, unlike the US one, takes the public opinion into consideration.
Despite demands in the U.S. Congress for punitive actions against Moscow, the Snowden's stay is seen as a small affair in Russia. Yuri Ushakov, a Russian presidential aide, on August 1 sought not to exaggerate the impact on relations between the two countries. Moscow was aware of the atmosphere created in the United States over Snowden, but had not received «any signals» regarding the cancellation of Obama's visit to Russia in September, Ushakov said. «This issue (of Snowden asylum) isn't significant enough to have an impact on political relations», he emphasized.
Somehow, the events make one more question come to mind. Once Snowden cannot do any damage to the Washington from now on, it’s hard to understand what the US politicians are so jittery about? Was it not the US government who revoked the Snowden’s passport making him stay in Russia? Russia never invited Snowden after all, he was on his way to Latin America, and it was the US who frustrated his plans. Is there anyone else but the US government to blame? Does it not make the US accusations sound like pot calling the kettle black?
State of relations
Only a few years ago, as the Russia-USA relationship «re-set» policy was launched in 2009, the picture was quite different from what it is today. There were wide opportunities for security cooperation with Russia rendering logistical support for US forces in Afghanistan at a time when the US relations with Pakistan were at low ebb. The cooperation agenda addressed Iran, the fight against terrorism, anti-drugs and anti-trafficking activities and the new nuclear forces reduction treaty (START-3) to cap the climax. There has been achieved great progress on the security side, which is stalled at present. The security cooperation has brought around good results but there is no visible headway to make in this direction anymore.
Since then Moscow and Washington have been at loggerheads on a number of issues, particularly the Syria conflict, where Russia supports the secular government and the US backs the rebels, whose ranks are increasingly filled with radicals from outside Syria. Iran is, by and large, a dividing issue too. The subject of counterterrorism has emerged as a rare bright spot in relations, especially in the aftermath of April’s Boston Marathon bombings, but this too may die away soon. White House spokesman Jay Carney said pointedly that the Russian decision on Snowden «undermines a long history of law enforcement cooperation». So, even before Snowden, the consensus in Washington and Moscow was that the «reset» policy touted in 2009 had run its course. There are deep differences on human rights. The US interference into Russia’s internal affairs is a thorny issue. Constant lecturing on human rights on the part of the US, a country with poor human rights record as the Snowden case shows, is an irritant, as a well as such actions as the Magnitsky Act. There things actually jeopardize the foundation of the Russia-US relationship exerting negative impact on such spheres of engagement as bilateral commissions, trade and economic deals, visa arrangements, adoption agreements and even cultural exchanges.
It’s a pity economy is not a major factor in bilateral relations. It could and should be. The U.S. annual trade with Russia is about forty billion dollars a year, or about a half of one percent of total U.S. trade. And it’s less than two percent of Russia’s total trade. Russia is around the tenth largest economy in the world. It’s lucrative market for the US in the times of economic woes. There is an enormous potential here, but the subject is not given the amount of attention it deserves.
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It’s hard to call reasonable any actions which would undermine the U.S. engagement with Russia on issues of much greater strategic interests than a runaway hacker which poses no threat to the United States anymore. Those who lash out against Russia should remember that President Putin did not create the Snowden problem. Blaming Russia deflects American public attention from more important issues Snowden raises about violations of personal freedoms in the United States and abroad.
Besides, without Moscow, the U.S. would have a harder time tackling multiple security challenges like ensuring supply routes to U.S. troops in Afghanistan, preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear capability, finding a solution to Syria’s crisis and many other things, you name it. It's unlikely the 30-year-old NSA leaker alone is important enough to spoil it all. But the US administration is under political pressure, it needs time to shape its stance on the issue. It’s not an occasion President Obama ostensibly left a journalist’s question on how the Snowden affair would affect the relations with Russia without answer.