For Russia’s Kremlin, Snowden Goes from Trophy to Liability

Posted July 4th, 2013 at 7:05 am (UTC+0)
3 comments

Happy ending for Edward? Russian spy Anna Chapman tweeted Thursday to 30-year-old American bachelor fugitive: “Edward will you marry me?”
But then, the red-haired Russian heartbreaker queried: “NSA, will you take care of our children?”
Photo: Ria Novosti/Grigory Sysoev

The Latin Americans came and left in their presidential jets.

But Edward Snowden stayed behind.

For the Kremlin, a propaganda coup is quickly becoming hot potato.

For over 10 days, the fugitive American intelligence agency leaker has been marooned in legal limbo, living invisibly somewhere in the “transit” area of a busy Moscow international airport.

But Washington is making it clear that there will be a price to pay for harboring America’s most wanted man.

“C’mon guys, can’t someone take him off my hands?” President Putin seems to be imploring at a meeting of gas exporting countries that brought to the Kremlin the leaders of Iraq, Iran, Venezuela, and Bolivia to the Kremlin. Over the last 10 days, For Edward Snowden has shifted from Kremlin propaganda coup to international liability. Photo: Reuters/Yuri Kochetkov

In Moscow on Tuesday for a gas exporters’ congress, Bolivia’s leader Evo Morales made sympathetic comments about Snowden to state-controlled Russian TV. A few hours later, his plane home was “redirected” to Vienna as France and Portugal closed their airspace to Snowden. Austrian police did not find the American fugitive on board.

Venezuela’s president, Nicolas Maduro, also hinted Tuesday in Moscow that he would grant Snowden asylum. But then flew off to Belarus, without Snowden on board. (This weekend, Venezuela, Bolivia and Nicaragua offered asylum to Snowden. If the Russians wants to avoid sending him in a commercial jet through NATO airspace, the simplest would be out the back door –Vladivostok — to South America by corporate jet. Another alternative: in recent years Tupolev Tu-160 strategic bombers have flow from Russia to Venezuela)

South American leaders have reacted with anger at the grounding and check of President Morales after it left Moscow. But no concrete offers of asylum have been made to Snowden. [Over the weekend, Venezuela, Bolivia and Nicaragua, offered asylum to Snowden. If the Kremlin wants to avoid sending him in a commercial jet through NATO airspace, the simplest route would be out the back door (Vladivostok) to South America, by corporate jet. Another alternative: in recent years Tupolev Tu-160 strategic bombers have flown directly from Russia to Venezuela for training missions]

As Washington exerts behind-the-scenes pressure, country after country – 22 at the last count — have said no to the former National Security Agency computer specialist.

President Putin said he only talked about gas with Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro. Was there a secret deal for Venezuela to take Snowden? Photo: Reuters/Maxim Shemetov

On Wednesday, Russia seemed to have joined this group. The Vedemosti newspaper reported that Snowden had been “persuaded” to withdraw his asylum application to Russia.

Vladimir Putin, who rarely passes up a chance to needle the United States, seems to realize there will be penalties this time.

Three months from now, the Russian president is to host President Obama here for a two-day summit long sought by the Kremlin. Six months from now, Putin hopes that thousands of Americans will be packing their bags attend the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia.

Patrick Chappette of the International Herald Tribune highlights the two countries that initially welcomed Snowden — only long enough to copy his National Security Agency files?

One can only imagine the behind-closed-doors message from the Obama Administration: if you keep harboring Snowden, forget about the September summit with Obama, and forget the State Department issuing a mild travel warning for the Olympics. Mention could be made of Wednesday’s threat by Russia’s terror leader, Doku Umarov, to carry out bomb attacks against the “satanic” Olympics.

Initially, Putin seemed to think he could have it both ways with Snowden.

By preventing Snowden from traveling on to Havana after a one-night stop in Moscow, Russia’s security services presumably gained full access to his four lap tops, filled with information stolen from the National Security Administration.

At the same time, Russia’s state-controlled TV ginned up a solidarity program with Snowden, allowing the Kremlin to take a stand for “human rights” and “transparency.”

More importantly, Snowden’s revelations of a massive spying program served to illustrate Putin’s theme that the U.S. is an enemy.

By raising the status of the U.S. to Russia’s enemy, Putin believes he has justification for his draconian new laws against non-governmental organizations, freedom of assembly and gays.

To bolster his base, Putin needs an external “enemy” — the US — and internal enemies, currently gays and democracy advocates. Here an anti-gay activist grabs a rainbow flag at a gay demonstration in St. Petersburg on June 29, the day before President Putin signed a wide ranging law banning all manifestations of “gay propaganda.” Photo: Reuters/Alexander Demianchuk

With an enemy (albeit a “safe” one that is far away), Putin can justify his big defense build-up. In Russia’s 2014 budget, defense spending is to rise by 22 percent, while health care spending is to drop by 25 percent and education is to drop by 16 percent. To sell that kind of budget, any president dearly needs a foreign “enemy.”

But judging by angry comments coming from members of the U.S. Congress over Snowden’s stay in Moscow, American animosity is shifting from virtual to real.

A big blow to American interests came last weekend, when the German newsmagazine Der Spiegel used Snowden’s stolen files to outline a massive spying campaign that the National Security Administration has undertaken against European citizens, European embassies, and the offices of the European Union.

This news could prove to be a game changer in relations between Europe and the United States. Leading Europeans are calling for suspending talks with Washington on the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership treaty.

Clearly, the spying program is a wound self-inflicted by Washington. But, it irritates many Americans that the agent for this upheaval is quietly enjoying the hospitality of Moscow. Since the end of World War II, a primary foreign policy goal of the Kremlin has been to drive a wedge between Europe and the United States.

Aware of this symbolism, Putin has been furiously trying to put daylight between the Kremlin and Snowden. Putin, a former KGB colonel, repeatedly has said that Russian security services would never ever take a peek at their guest’s computers.

Bolivian President Evo Morales and a military aide at Vienna’s international airport on July 3. The grounding and search of Bolivia’s presidential jet may embolden some South American nation to give asylum to Edward Snowden — “Washington’s most wanted man.” Photo: Reuters/Heinz-Peter Bader

The Der Spiegel revelations may have had diplomats at Russia’s Foreign Ministry slapping high fives behind closed doors, but the Russian president’s public advice to Snowden was: “If he wants to stay here, there is one condition: He must stop his work aimed at harming our U.S. partners, no matter how strange this may sound coming from me.”

At the same time, Putin has publicly ruled out helping his American partners by putting Snowden on the next Aeroflot flight to Washington.

So now, with the Latin Americans undecided, the search continues for a third country.

Here is one option: the once a week Air Koryo flight from Vladivostok to Pyongyang. The last American I know who went to North Korea for asylum, Army Sergeant Charles Robert Jenkins, ended up getting stuck there for 40 years.

James Brooke
James Brooke is the Russia/CIS bureau chief for Voice of America. A lifelong journalist, he covered West Africa, Brazil, the American Rocky Mountain States, Canada, and Japan/Korea for The New York Times. A resident of Moscow since 2006, he was first Bloomberg bureau chief for the region. In 2010, he joined VOA. In addition to writing Russia Watch, his weekly blog, he also does video, radio and web reports from Russia and the former USSR.

3 Responses to “For Russia’s Kremlin, Snowden Goes from Trophy to Liability”

  1. Gennady says:

    1. First things first. In 96 years old turbulent history of contemporary Russia, there was no such a thing as “a former agent/officer” in VChK-OGPU-KGB-FSB. Rare exceptions to the rule were shot dead or died “in mysterious” circumstances. Once a KGB man always remains a KGB man till “grave takes us apart”. Does Mr. Putin look like a rebel? I don’t think so. So, my Russian gut instinct makes me to disagree with the wording in the article that Mr. Putin is a FORMER KGB colonel. He may be a former COLONEL, but he can never ever be a former KGB officer till he lives/holds any position. Irony is that even Mr. Putin as Russian President himself admits how unusually his own advice to Mr. Snowden sounds by publicly contradicting to his credo of “a professional gentleman of cloak and dagger”.

    2. The Vedemosti newspaper cited in the article misreported that Snowden had been “persuaded” to withdraw his asylum application to Russia. Mr. Peskov, Putin’s press secretary, was more specific: Snowden had withdrawn his interest in asylum in Russia after Putin spelled out the terms: “If he [Snowden] wants to stay here, there is one condition: He must stop his work aimed at harming our U.S. partners, no matter how strange this may sound coming from me.”
    If I read between the lines of the professional KGB man’s announcement, the Kremlin wants its monopoly on Mr. Snowden’s information after the Kremlin has got all that the delivery man [Snowden] had brought.
    Mr. Snowden didn’t anticipate such a turn as he miscalculated and got caught in a limbo “in the free world” of KGB design. With his personal tragedy unfolding, Mr. Snowden didn’t foresee that in XXI century he would repeat entertaining adventures of tragic Don Quixote of La Mancha in the novel, written by Miguel de Cervantes in 1605. As we know, Don Quixote (Mr.Snowden) has read so many chivalric novels to lose touch with a real world and embark on his way to revive chivalry as he has imagined it to be.

    3. Can anybody imagine such a thing as Russian security services would never ever take a peek at their guest’s [Snowden] computers while he sleeps/is in a bathroom or simply drugged? I can’t.
    After they have done with the copying, the “guest” (delivery man) looses his market value, particularly the man involved in the scandal of the world proportion with the risk of the diplomatic standoff and lasting damage to relations with Washington.
    So, I would take with the Latin phrase cum grano salis (“with a grain of salt”) the announcement that Moscow made clear that Snowden is an increasingly unwelcome guest. Observing the rule that Russia has never ever extradited anybody and never will do that, they want to make Mr. Snowden’s willingness stay in Russia look natural as it can be. Certainly, the Kremlin works hard to narrow Mr. Snowden’s options with no country agreeing to grant him asylum and to make him accept their only offer – to take the post of a technical specialist in one of numerous Russian spy schools by his own choice.

    4. I doubt that any KGB/FSB man holds spies in great esteem. A traitor and classified information are universal notions everywhere in the world, particularly in Russia. In 95 years tumultuous history there was no more serious crime as to leak top state secrets in Russia. After any premeditated murder the culprit gets 5-15 years in colony, but after leakage of state secrets there will be verdict for imminent death or life imprisonment. According to some sources, Oleg Penkovsky, the high-profile traitor, was executed by cremating alive in 1960-s with high-ranking KGB officers attending the execution. And it happened not in dark Mediaeval Ages but with Mr. Putin in his teens. Alexander Litvinenko is one more example.

    5. Nowadays Russia can’t allow itself such a gamble with Snowden’s saga as it has got a host of internal problems. Russia has got into a dire financial state, trying to boost military spending at the cost of the society will worsen its finances and prospects. Russia slides into economic recession with zero-business activity, record flight of the capital outwards. Demographic crisis, scientific and technological backwardness have no signs of abating. To add more to the gloomy picture: the huge pile of nuclear weapons needs billions $ for urgent upgrade or speedy dismantlement, rocket industry needs facelift with almost every second launch into outer space failing.

  2. liberti says:

    Calling Mr. Putin a “former” KGB colonel is like saying that a canine is a ‘former’ German Shepherd.

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About

James Brooke is VOA Moscow bureau chief, covering Russia and the former USSR. With The New York Times, he worked as a foreign correspondent in Africa, Latin America, Canada and Japan/Koreas. He studied Russian in college during the Brezhnev years, first visited Moscow as a reporter during the final months of Gorbachev, and then came back for reporting forays during the Yeltsin and early Putin years. In 2006, he moved to Moscow to report for Bloomberg. He joined VOA in Moscow in 2010. Follow Jim on Twitter @VOA_Moscow.

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