Edward Snowden, the former National Security Agency contractor who leaked information about two highly classified surveillance programs in June, was granted one-year asylum by Russia on Thursday. The move defied calls from the Obama administration for Russia to extradite Snowden to the U.S. to face charges over the leak. We asked Harlow Robinson, Matthews Distinguished University Professor and an expert in Russian history and culture, to analyze the move and what it means for Russia’s relations with the U.S. and its neighbors.
What was your reaction to Russia’s decision?
I’m somewhat surprised, but not entirely so given Russia’s international image and other things happening in the country. For instance, its anti-gay legislation, supported by Russian President Vladimir Putin, has been very unpopular internationally and may have implications for the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia. There’s been a provocative stance in Russian policy toward the rest of the world that has increased in recent months. Another example is the Syria situation, in which the Russians have been reluctant to get onboard with the American program and instead make it clear they have their own interests in the region. So this move is part of that larger picture.
Since coming into power in 2000, Putin has been eager to establish Russia’s power as an independent, important nation, which was in part a reaction against the pro-Americanism of the Boris Yeltsin years of the 1990s when many Russians felt the pendulum had swung too far toward appeasing the United States. What Americans don’t appreciate about Russia and the former Soviet Union is that Russians feel humiliated by their loss of global stature in the post-Soviet era. The Putin years have signaled a movement in the other direction: to reestablish Russia as an important global player and to make clear that its actions and reactions won’t always be predictable. This provocative move also has echoes of the old Cold War days.
As for Snowden himself, this means asylum in Russia; it’s not a resort. Who knows how Snowden will be treated. Where will he live? This is a devil’s bargain, for sure. He has no passport, and he’s at the mercy of the Russian authorities, who history has shown aren’t delicate in dealing with anyone seen as a thorn in their side. Snowden is really a prisoner now in Russia.
How will this decision affect U.S.-Russian relations?
It won’t help. President Obama made it clear that it was personally important to him that Russia not grant Snowden asylum. For Putin to do so—under terms that seem vague and can apparently be extended beyond one year—will affect Obama and Putin’s personal relationship, which was already not the best. In fact, it now remains to be seen whether they’ll still have a personal meeting in St. Petersburg, which is planned in the fall around the G-20 Summit. There have also been rumblings about boycotting the Olympics on the basis of the anti-gay legislation pending in Russia. I doubt that will happen, but it’s another factor that’s not having a positive effect on the relationship between the U.S. and Russia.
How does this move position Russia in the region?
Putin is very shrewd at capitalizing on the anti-American sentiment in large parts of the world. Here, you could see him even playing to extremists in Russia and others in places such as Iran and Iraq where there are strong anti-American feelings and beliefs that the U.S. has too much power. So this is one of the strategies Putin and his people are adopting, playing to these disaffected, anti-American elements. Russia may be trying to improve its stature with those areas.