Vladimir Putin once again appeared not to know what was happening in the Edward Snowden affair unfolding in the capital of his own country. It was last Friday, shortly before 5 p.m. local time in Moscow. The news about the American whistle-blower's application for asylum was making the rounds.
The computer expert had invited 13 representatives of "human rights organizations" to the transit area of the city's Sheremetyevo airport, where he has been stranded since flying from Hong Kong to Moscow on June 23. He told his select audience that he would like to stay in Russia, and would apply for asylum to do so, until he was permitted to travel on to one of the Latin American countries that have offered or considered granting him asylum.
Meanwhile, Putin was outside the capital on a visit to Belgorod. The city lies about 600 kilometers (370 miles) south of Moscow, which isn't very far considering the country's vastness. But those around Putin gave off the impression of being surprised. "We regrettably had no chance to review the announcement," Putin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters by telephone.
Even the headlines of Russian news agencies were rather misleading. "Snowden Meets with Human Rights Advocates at Moscow Airport" -- made it sound as if the former intelligence contractor for America's National Security Agency (NSA) and current crusader against Internet surveillance had formed an alliance with Kremlin opponents. But, in reality, they were only meant to serve as props aimed at concealing the Kremlin's involvement.
Moscow-based lawyers and politicians close to the government had already been in close contact by phone on Thursday. At that point, it was already clear that Snowden would stay in Russia. Likewise, it's hard to imagine that Snowden could have gotten out the invitations to his meeting at the Moscow airport without Russian help.
In fact, among the invited guests were not only activists such as Tanya Lokshina of Human Rights Watch and the prominent Russian lawyer Genri Reznik, but also a man like Vyacheslav Nikonov. This grandson of Stalin's long-serving Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov is also a member of parliament with Putin's United Russia party and a heavyweight within foreign-policy circles. Nikonov had received Snowden's invitation at the email address of one of the political foundations he belongs to. But Nikonov would have never crossed Snowden's mind without the prompting of Russian officials.
Given these facts, it wasn't difficult to discern the Kremlin's handwriting -- and the fact that it was Putin's government, rather than Snowden himself, that had orchestrated the latter's appearance. It was the first time that Snowden had emerged from the depths of the airport since arriving over three weeks earlier. And Snowden's asylum application was missing only a signature. And, according to sources who attended the meeting, Snowden also uttered the key words: "No actions I take or plan are meant to harm the US … I want the US to succeed." Of course, this had been precisely the deal that Putin had offered on July 1, when he said: "If (Snowden) wants to stay here, there is one condition: He must stop his activities aimed at inflicting damage on our American partners, no matter how strange it may sound coming from my lips." And it was also Putin's gesture of appeasement toward the Americans.
The next chapter in the Edward Snowden drama has begun. On July 2, Putin spokesman Peskov announced that the 30-year-old had withdrawn his request for asylum after Putin had laid out his terms. But now everything has suddenly changed. In the statement he read at his appearance on Friday, Snowden thanked Venezuela, Bolivia, Nicaragua and Ecuador for their willingness to offer "support and asylum." Since his passport has been revoked, he is not allowed to leave Sheremetyevo airport, Snowden continued. So, in order to regain at least some freedom of movement, he said he has been forced to ask Russia for asylum.
Today, sources to Kremlin report that Russia is considering granting Edward Snowden temporary asylum and he could be out in the transit zone in less than 3 days. Officials in Moscow had looked into this possibility early on. While Putin was still playing aloof, Sergey Naryshkin, chairman of Russia's lower house of parliament and a former Kremlin chief of staff, piped in, saying that granting Snowden asylum was permitted by Russia's constitution and laws, and that it would comply with international legal norms. Naryshkin also said that he thought there was a "very high risk" that the alleged traitor would face the death penalty if American authorities ever got their hands on him. "We simply don't have the right to allow something like that to happen," he added.
The question is: Why was it claimed on July 2 that Snowden had turned down Putin's first conditional offer? The likely answer is that Snowden only recently realized that, at the moment, Moscow is still the best of all the options open to him.Flights from Sheremetyevo to Latin America have seemed risky, especially after a plane ferrying Bolivian President Evo Morales from Moscow to La Paz was forced to land in Vienna -- most likely due to pressure from the Americans because they suspected Snowden was on the plane.
Meanwhile, countries like Bolivia and Ecuador -- both of which have offered him asylum -- are too small and weak to ensure Snowden's safety. But one could hardly imagine that Washington would send elite military units into the territory of Russia, a fellow nuclear heavyweight, in order to fetch him back to America. Putin knows that. And Snowden does, too. However, like the Americans, President Putin will have also carefully weighed the benefits and drawbacks of his current strategy for dealing with Snowden.
For the Kremlin, which has been under attack for both its domestic and foreign policies ever since Putin started his third term as president in May 2012, Snowden is a godsend. Putin has been exploiting the storm kicked up by the fugitive computer expert to draw attention away from his own problems, such as Russia's stagnating economy and the hard line he is taking against the opposition, which is weakening public support for him in the country's major cities.
The US data scandals have allowed Russia to shift the focus away from its own actions and onto how Americans treat their own opponents -- first with WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange; then with Pfc. Bradley Manning, the source of the WikiLeaks information who has already been in jail for over three years; and now with Snowden. The Russian government's message is: compared with what our
American counterparts are getting up to, we're choirboys.
And the majority of Russians actually do see things this way and, at least for now, the Snowden affair has brought their deeply divided society closer together. Whether conservative or liberal, anti- or pro-American, Putin supporter or opponent -- they have all voiced support for granting Snowden asylum.
But the Kremlin is playing a risky game. Putin is trying to convince his people that Russia continues to be a superpower standing on an equal footing with the United States. But, at the same time, he has to worry about letting Moscow's relations with Washington deteriorate further. The countries' presidents are supposed to meet for a summit in the Russian capital in September. Although Putin views Obama as weak, he still doesn't want the meeting to be cancelled on account of Snowden.
At the moment, Putin is holding the better hand, especially since America wants more from Russia than Moscow wants from Washington. Obama needs the Eastern superpower for a number of things: to serve as a transit country for US soldiers withdrawing from Afghanistan; to help solve the problems with Syria and Iran; and to reach the ambitious disarmament goals that he outlined during the recent G-8 summit in Northern Ireland.
Russia can rest easy for a number of reasons: It has the fourth-largest foreign currency reserves in the world, worth some €400 billion ($520 billion). And in 2012, its trade with the US was worth $40 billion -- above all the Americans have never handed over a Russian defector.
Nevertheless, the Americans insist that Putin turn Snowden over. President Obama reportedly telephoned Putin in person on Friday and addressed Snowden's request for asylum. But the matter of fact is: Washington is taking a dimmer view of Russian-American relations than Moscow at present.
By Guylain Gustave Moke