The marriage of convenience between President Putin and Edward Snowden has lasted as long as it has because it suits them to prolong the affair. For Snowden, his decision to take temporary refuge in Russia keeps him in the headlines for months, rather than weeks, and provides a safe haven. For Putin, either granting temporary refuge to Snowden, or enabling him to remain in the transit lounge in Moscow for an indeterminate period of time, keeps him in the driver’s seat – a place he likes to be. But Putin is gaining much more than that from the arrangement.
Snowden has been a ‘gift’ for Putin, having placed Russia in the limelight as either the potential savior of the U.S. intelligence community or its greatest villain. It is hard to say whether Putin relishes one role more than the other, but this must be viewed in the greater context of Russia-U.S. relations. President Obama initially tried to ‘reset’ the bilateral relationship between the U.S. and Russia, following the frosty rapport Putin had with George W. Bush. Having failed to do so during his first term, Obama has been trying to ‘reset the reset,’ with little success. The primary issues are a clash of objectives and opposing positions in a range of geopolitical flashpoints – from Iran and Syria to missile defense. Regrettably, the bilateral relationship continues to be difficult, which makes a mutually acceptable solution to the Snowden affair hard to imagine at this juncture.
As a former KGB spy, Putin understands the nuances of gathering intelligence, but also the imperative of acting quickly and decisively to get what he wants. We must assume that that the FSB has already drained Snowden’s laptops and thumb drives like a flask of Stolichnaya. On that basis, Putin has little incentive to let Snowden stay – even on a temporary basis – as a political refugee. In the absence of having already obtained Snowden’s secrets – which represents a once in a lifetime opportunity for Russian intelligence – Putin would have every incentive to roll out the red carpet for him. Indeed, Russia has a rich history of having done so for western spies sympathetic to Russia or with valuable information in the past.
Putin’s condition that Snowden could only be granted political refugee status if he “stopped harming Russia’s American partner” is really nothing more than political theater aimed at maintaining the illusion of cordial relations between the two countries. In reality, there is no way Putin would have passed up the opportunity to milk Snowden of his secrets and the best public relations platform a leader could ever hope for. They are both doing a masterful job.
So what happens next? It is entirely possible Putin will grant Snowden temporary refugee status, which may then turn into permanent refugee status. He may want to put Snowden to work for Russia. Snowden would probably view that as a decent outcome, for he would be far outside the arm of U.S law and actions – something he could surely not say if he accepted asylum in any of the Latin American countries that have thus far offered it. While he may not be ‘petting a phoenix,’ as he imagined he might have done if he had played the Beijing card when he had the chance, he would undoubtedly be a well looked after ward of the Russian state.
If Putin chooses to jettison Snowden, it will only be after he has achieved his own objectives. Snowden has only one good option at this point in time – to nestle in the bosom of the Russian bear. That would be a disaster for the U.S., with the only worse possible outcome being if Snowden had run to Beijing first. Putin has the U.S. by the cojones and he knows it. Perhaps it is time for Mr. Obama to ‘reset the reset’ - again.