Russia Watch: For Russia’s Kremlin, Snowden goes from trophy to liability

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 Moscow’s busiest international airport.

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

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, apparently without Snowden on board.

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.

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.

On Wednesday, Russia seemed to have joined this group. The Vedomosti 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.

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.

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.

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.


(Russian president Vladimir Putin with Bolivian president Evo Morales, whose plane was diverted to Vienna on suspicion that Snowden was on-board. Photo:



James Brooke VOA Moscow Bureau Chief

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 last summer – the hottest on record. Follow Jim on Twitter @VOA_Moscow.