It must have been somewhat painful for Edward Snowden to turn down asylum in Russia. Stranded for more than a week in a Moscow airport, the fugitive from U.S. justice seems to have few places left to hide. He is wanted for exposing the secret methods of his former bosses in America’s intelligence agencies, and a handful of countries have already refused to shelter him, likely fearing the fury of Washington. But desperate as his situation has become, Snowden seems to have refused the one condition President Vladimir Putin set for granting him asylum: he refused to stop leaking the secrets of the U.S. government.
On Tuesday morning, Putin’s spokesman revealed this news with a tone just shy of relief. “[Snowden] has turned away from his intentions and from his request to receive the opportunity to stay in Russia,” said Dmitri Peskov. “Due to his own heartfelt convictions or for some other reasons, Snowden sees himself as a rights activist, a warrior for democratic ideals, for human freedoms.” Those ideals were apparently incompatible with the caveat Putin laid out the previous day when he agreed to grant Snowden asylum under one condition: “He must stop doing work aimed at harming our American partners,” Putin said, “however strange that may sound coming from my lips.”
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This sounded strange from those lips because defending the interests of the U.S. government is not exactly Putin’s forte. Since taking the third presidential term in office in May 2012, Putin has revived the Soviet-era dogma of anti-Americanism using a lot of the rhetoric he internalized during his days as a KGB colonel. Relations with Washington have sunk since then to the lowest point in a generation, with Putin famously declaring during his re-election bid last year that the U.S. “does not need allies; it needs vassals.”
His foreign policy centers these days on a refusal to be a U.S. vassal state, or even a cooperative partner. He has picked fights over U.S. adoptions of Russian children, over Russian rights groups funded by the U.S. and over geopolitical issues like the civil war in Syria. At home, he has cast himself as a bulwark against U.S. influence, the only leader in the world who can truly stand up to Washington. But when it came this week to a direct confrontation with his “American partners” — as Snowden’s asylum would no doubt have caused — he backed away.
He must have known that Snowden would not accept his precondition. On Saturday, two days before Putin announced the asylum deal, the German magazine Der Spiegel published another of Snowden’s leaks, this one detailing how the U.S. spied on its European allies. Julian Assange, the founder of the whistle-blowing organization WikiLeaks, said the following day that the leaks would continue. “There is no stopping the publishing process at this stage,” Assange told ABC News. The day after that, WikiLeaks released a statement it ascribed to Snowden, who was apparently determined to keep his revelations coming. “The Obama administration is afraid of you,” the statement said. “It is afraid of an informed, angry public demanding the constitutional government it was promised — and it should be. I am unbowed in my convictions.”
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But Putin’s convictions have proved a lot more malleable, and in effect, the Snowden affair has called his anti-American bluff. It has shown that his venom toward Washington is the act of a paper tiger, drawing political capital from the antagonisms of the Cold War. But he does not actually want to revive those antagonisms, certainly not for the sake of protecting a U.S. fugitive. At least in part, that is because Putin does not share the values that fugitive extols.
In the past few days, phrases like human rights and democratic values have issued from unlikely lips in Moscow, and they have sounded hollow to the point of comedy. Meeting on Monday during a session of the Public Chamber, an advisory body to the Kremlin, some of the diehards of the Russian establishment morphed into a Snowden pep squad, waxing self-righteous all of a sudden about transparency and freedom of speech. Listening to their defense of Snowden’s actions felt like watching bankers form a drum circle at an Occupy Wall Street event, and perhaps the prospect of such company encouraged Snowden to take his chances at the airport.
As long as he stays there, cornered in the transit zone, Putin will also have no good options. As the daily Nezavisimaya Gazeta pointed out in a biting editorial on Tuesday, even granting him asylum unconditionally would not offer Putin much of an upside at this point. It would not be taken as a principled step because Russia has never truly defended Snowden’s principles. “The only thing Russia has consistently defended on the world stage is its own sovereignty,” the paper wrote. “The principle of noninterference in its own affairs.” By that principle, it cannot bend to the U.S. demands to extradite Snowden. But neither, apparently, can it take the principled step of granting him asylum. Morally, then, Russia is stuck in a kind of limbo, somewhat like the legal limbo of Snowden’s life in the transit zone — neither here nor there.