3Qs: Snowden gets asylum in Russia

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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.

Russia’s decision to grant NSA leaker Edward Snowden temporary asylum is a provocative move for both the country and its president, says history professor Harlow Robinson. Photo via Thinkstock.

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.

2 comments

  1. These ques­tions are too focused on a US slanted view in sup­port of the US taking part in illegal activ­i­ties and making Russia look like the aggressor here. The fact is that the Russia has the right to give asylum, espe­cially to a man that is not guilty of trying to pro­tect the cit­i­zens of the US. Snowden’s actions will also make the US think twice about such dic­ta­to­rial behavior and might even cause the US to behave prop­erly in the future, but I doubt it.

    Russia is just doing the same thing that the US has done in many sim­ilar sit­u­a­tions world­wide. Does anyone remember the ‘cold war’ where the US gave asylum to Rus­sians? Does anyone remember how the US put dic­ta­tors into power in the Middle east, or helped al-​​Quaida back in the 80s?

    Con­grats to Russia(I may not agree with all of Russia’s polit­ical views) for taking a stance and making a good media play of it. Russia beat the US at its own game.

    Are Russia and the US going to cut each other off polit­i­cally or eco­nom­i­cally? No way!! The US and Russia are actu­ally quite friendly world wide. We even share in space explo­rations! Just because the two coun­tries have idiots for pres­i­dents, does not mean another wall will be manufactured.

  2. I don’t under­stand why we are focusing on Snowden, and not the trou­bling Orwellian insights that he brought to light.

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