Snowden and Putin: U.S. Whistle-Blower’s Fate Is in Russian President’s Hands

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Luke MacGregor / Reuters

Russia's President Vladimir Putin leaves Downing Street in London on June 16, 2013

For Russia’s spy agencies, the arrival of Edward Snowden in Moscow on Sunday would have presented a great temptation, like a king salmon jumping into the lap of a grizzly bear. Here was a bona fide American intelligence source alighting in Russia with no valid passport, no bodyguards and no legal protections, possibly carrying several hard drives full of U.S. secrets and, apparently, unfriendly feelings toward his former employers at the CIA and the NSA.

But on Tuesday, President Vladimir Putin said his men had been keeping their distance. “Our special services have never worked with Mr. Snowden and are not working with him today,” Putin said. “As a transit passenger, he is in the transit hall [of the airport], and that is where he remains.”

So for two days Snowden has been hanging out among the stiff-backed chairs and lousy cafés of Sheremetyevo airport, within whispering distance of Russian spies, and all of them have avoided “working” with him? That would be a feat of restraint. The Kremlin’s intelligence agencies spend enormous resources trying to learn the kinds of secrets that Snowden possesses. And the U.S. surveillance programs he has already exposed to the Guardian and the Washington Post seem to be just a taste of the information he is carrying.

According to Glenn Greenwald, the Guardian columnist who first reported the leak, Snowden has “in his possession thousands of documents, which, if published, would impose crippling damage on the United States’ surveillance capabilities and systems around the world.” At least in the past, Russian security services would have killed — literally — to get their hands on such a cache of documents.

(MORE: With Apparent Help From WikiLeaks, Snowden Leaves Hong Kong)

In negotiations with Washington, Snowden could prove no less valuable. The U.S. has unleashed a global manhunt for the 30-year-old whistle-blower, pressuring allies and enemies alike to send him back to the U.S. to stand trial for espionage and other charges. China has already refused these demands by allowing Snowden to take off from Hong Kong to Moscow over the weekend. If Russia decides to take Snowden into custody, it would be unlikely to grant his extradition without asking something in exchange.

It could, for instance, ask for the freedom of two of its citizens — the convicted arms dealer Viktor Bout and the convicted drug smuggler Konstantin Yaroshenko — whose release from U.S. prisons Russia has long been demanding. It could also ask for the extradition of the former Russian spymaster, reportedly named Alexander Poteyev, who defected to the U.S. in 2010 and allegedly exposed an entire network of Russian agents.

Why, then, would Russia keep its hands off Snowden? On Tuesday evening, Putin hinted coyly at an explanation. When asked about the possibility of extraditing the whistle-blower back to the U.S., he told a press conference: “Snowden sees himself as a rights activist and claims that he is fighting to spread information. Just ask yourself: Is it worth handing people like that over for imprisonment? In any case, I would prefer not to deal with such questions, because it will turn out the same as shearing a pig — lots of squealing, little wool.”

Apart from the hokey Russian aphorism — one of Putin’s elocutionary staples — the President seems to be reveling in the chance to lecture Washington from a moral pedestal. In Snowden’s case, the usual roles have been reversed — the U.S. is the one trying to silence its critic, and Russia is offering that critic some cover. The propaganda value of this situation is enormous for Putin — it serves to highlight the hypocrisy of U.S. finger wagging over human rights, and it draws attention away from the fact that several of Putin’s fiercest critics are currently on trial in Moscow.

At the same time, Putin insists that Russia is taking a hands-off approach — it is not granting Snowden asylum or diplomatic cover. Instead, it is trying to keep out of Washington’s business, just as Putin would like Washington to keep out of Russia’s. “Mr. Snowden is a free man,” Putin said. “The faster he chooses a final destination, the better it will be for us and for himself.” In other words, Mr. Snowden, please get out of Russia’s hair.

Most likely, he soon will, perhaps flying on to Ecuador, where he has applied for political asylum. But that does not mean Russian security services will necessarily avoid debriefing him before he catches his connecting flight. Indeed, many observers in the U.S. seem to have assumed that Snowden already gave up all of his secrets to Russia and China.

“That stuff is gone,” a former senior U.S. intelligence official who served in Russia told the Washington Post on Monday. “I guarantee the Chinese intelligence service got their hands on that right away. If they imaged the hard drives and then returned them to him, well, then the Russians have that stuff now.”

(MORE: U.S. Government ‘Disappointed’ Hong Kong Let Snowden Leave, Asks Russia to Extradite Him)

Officials from WikiLeaks, the whistle-blowing organization that is helping Snowden find safe haven, have denied this. Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks, has said repeatedly that neither the Russian nor the Chinese intelligence services had questioned Snowden. But why would they have missed such an opportunity?

Just last month, Russia’s Federal Security Service, the intelligence agency known as the FSB, claimed to have caught a CIA spy in the act of recruiting a Russian officer, and it used that incident to its full advantage. The alleged spy turned out to be Ryan Fogle, an official at the U.S. embassy in Moscow, and he was detained during a late-night sting operation while wearing a blond wig as his disguise. Fogle was then marched into the FSB headquarters and given a lecture about spying protocol as state-TV cameras rolled. The point was to show the Russian public that the U.S. is still up to its Cold War tricks, so Russia is justified in hitting back.

Alexei Pushkov, the head of the foreign-relations committee in Russia’s parliament, was quick to make this point on Monday. “People are already saying that giving Snowden asylum would be a ‘Cold War act’ on our part,” Pushkov tweeted. “But since spying with a wig on is now the norm, providing asylum is not a [Cold War] act.” In other words, Snowden is fair game if Russia wants to keep him — a sentiment echoed by the Kremlin ombudsman for human rights, Vladimir Lukin, who told the Interfax news agency: “We can hand him over or we can not hand him over.” And at this point, there isn’t much the U.S. can do about it.

On Tuesday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov made clear that Moscow would not bend to any pressure from the U.S. over Snowden. “We consider it absolutely unjustified and unacceptable … to accuse Russia of violating U.S. law,” Lavrov said in response to criticism from his U.S. counterpart, John Kerry. “There is not the slightest legal basis for such behavior from U.S. officials.” So the U.S. is left to wait for Snowden’s next move, most likely a flight from Moscow to some destination in Latin America. And as for the question of whether Russian security services have managed to shear Snowden of his remaining secrets — that will probably remain between the two of them, and neither side is likely to squeal.

MORE: On the Run to Moscow, Edward Snowden Keeps Americans Guessing