Snowden, Putin, Geopolitics and Rhetorical Spin

July 17, 2013
Edward Snowden. Photograph: Tanya Lokshina of Human Rights Watch

The Russian government is facing a conflict in interest in their consideration of NSA leaker Edward Snowden. On one hand, Russia is reaping the benefits of the leak, as the NSA’s systems for gathering intelligence have been exposed. More broadly, the NSA’s practices have embarrassed the United States both at home and abroad, and has been used as evidence that the Obama Administration is not living by the rhetoric that got Barack Obama elected in 2008.

On the other hand, Russia is often at odds with Washington, and NATO generally, and there is some concern that if all common ground between Russia and the West disappears, then it will hurt Russia’s credibility and geopolitical influence across the board. As such, harboring a man who is a fugitive from the United States and whom many are calling a traitor, is highly problematic.

Last week, I suggested that if one read between the lines of both statements by Russian government officials and editorial decisions by Russian state press, it seemed like the rhetoric was being established to possibly open the door for fugitive Edward Snowden to stay in Russia while continuing to leak. For instance, Putin suggested that Snowden would have to stop hurting the United States, while several Russian officials, and Putin himself, suggested that Snowden’s actions were brave anit-imperial acts conducted in the interest of human rights. But there was a clear ambiguity in the statements – on one hand, Russia seemed to be allaying the concerns of its American partners, while on the other it was hedging its bets.

Recent statements, however, are more clear. Today, RFE/RL leads with this headline: “Putin Says U.S. Ties More Important Than Snowden ‘Squabbles’.”

“Our bilateral ties, in my view, are much more important than any squabbles around the work of security services,” Putin told journalists in the context of questions about tensions related to the U.S. contractor.

The same article notes a statement from the chairman of the Interior Ministry’s public oversight committee, Anatoly Kucherena, that suggests that if Snowden is given asylum, the Russian government would still prefer he leave Russia:

“I think [Snowden] will leave [the airport] in the next few days,” Kucherena said. “Certain documents still need to be processed, but I think this issue will be resolved within a week. And after that the issue of granting him temporary asylum will be addressed.”

The Russian media has picked up this line as well. The state-owned outlet RT gave an interview to John Laughland from the Institute of Democracy and Cooperation, a think tank funded through Russian NGOs and donors which tends to defend the Russian government. Laughland suggested that Russia’s granting of temporary asylum would allow Snowden to more easily escape to a Latin American country like Venezuela. He also suggested that Snowden

doesn’t want to cease his activity, he wants to carry on campaigning. Vladimir Putin recognized that in his very first remark about the case some weeks ago when he said he didn’t think it was likely that Snowden would agree to stay in Russia because of the condition which Putin was going to impose. But it’s clear now that the solution has been that he will agree to forbear, at least that’s what we understand, releasing any more information, for as long as he is on Russian territory. Russians, as you reported, just said they didn’t seek this outcome; they didn’t intend Snowden to come to Russia. He happened to be transiting through Moscow just as many people transit through a country without any intending to stay there. So I understand this quite simply as a technical means by which he can, as I say, get out of legal limbo and make progress on his application for permanent residence, let’s say for asylum in Latin America.

This raises the very real possibility that Russia is actually helping Snowden escape to permanent asylum elsewhere while still not losing face with the Obama administration. This certainly isn’t the first time that it has been suggested that Russia is directly helping Snowden, and on many levels it’s the ideal solution for the Russian government. They get to help Snowden leak (which benefits Russia on many levels) but they get to avoid most of the fallout with the United States.

From a media-watcher’s perspective, this incident also provides insight into how the Russian government, and the Russian media, works to transform a message over time until the most favorable solution can be found.