Over the past week, the relationship between President Obama and President Putin took a number of twists and turns worthy of a Hollywood screenplay.
This document allows Snowden to move within Russian freely. Photo: Alexei Naumov / RIA Novosti
The Russian government granting Edward Snowden asylum and then the subsequent cancellation of President Obama’s planned visit to Moscow has given the two governments something to talk about, if nothing else.
As soon as the story of Snowden camping out in Sheremetyevo for a month begins to fade from the headlines, President Obama’s announcement that he would not follow through on his previously planned trip to the Russian capital has provided another twist in the plot of the almost novel-like serialization of events in the U.S.-Russian relationship.
This turn of events was handled differently in both the Western and Russian media. On one hand, the American media attempted to portray the cancelled summit meeting in Moscow as a personal snub of Putin in response to Russia's handling of the Snowden Affair. On the other hand, the Russian media took a more realistic view of things: there was never any real agenda planned for Moscow, and the cancelled summit had more to do with Obama placating his domestic base than with slighting Russia.
Confusing matters even more, the night before announcing the decision to cancel the Moscow summit, President Obama was happily signaling the future of American foreign policy towards Russia on the TV studio set of Jay Leno’s “The Tonight Show.”
While the White House lists lack of progress in bilateral relations as the main reason for the cancellation of the U.S.-Russia summit in September, the press statement adds, “Russia’s disappointing decision to grant Edward Snowden temporary asylum was also a factor that we considered in assessing the current state of our bilateral relationship.”
As reported by the Wall Street Journal - and almost every other major news source - this cancellation signals a downhill direction in the future of Russian-American relations – maybe even the start of a new Cold War. The New York Times compared it to the divorce of a marriage long-gone bad.
And as most divorce proceedings go, this one also started with the laying on of blame.
Obama stands up Putin, possibly breaking up the relationship forever. Awkward. http://t.co/B5GKm9D37G— The New Republic (@tnr) August 7, 2013
The Russian newspaper Kommersant reports that Moscow had little choice in the matter but to grant Snowden asylum in order to save face. The paper also quotes the head of the foreign affairs committee of the State Duma, Alexei Pushkov, who points out that America gave Russia very little choice with how they dealt with Snowden.
After having his ability to travel through most airspace cut off (by America calling in favors with key countries) and knowing about the espionage charges that waited for him at home, the former intelligence officer had no other recourse but to stay in the Russian Federation.
The word “disappointed” comes up again, but this time from Russia’s side. RIA Novosti reports that Putin’s top foreign policy aide, Yury Ushakov, regrets the United State’s decision to withdraw from the two-country summit.
Although Snowden was a headache for Russian officials, they’ve seemed to embrace the upper hand his situation has given the Russian government. Analysts from both countries agree that little was to be gained in Obama and Putin’s pre-G20 summit in September because of lack of issues to productively discuss.
Benjamin Rhodes, Obama's deputy national security advisor, puts it this way, “We just don't want to have a summit for the sake of having a summit.” Similarly, Fyodor Lukyanov, Editor-in-Chief of the journal Russia in Global Affairs, was quoted by Interfax as saying that "there is nothing to derail" and "there are no issues that need to be discussed urgently with Putin in a separate meeting in September."
But that reasoning hasn’t stopped the countries from pointing fingers. Russia has chosen to act surprised by America’s decision to abstain from Obama’s scheduled meeting with Putin.
In an interview with the TV channel Russia Today, Konstantin Dolgov, Russian Foreign Ministry's Special Representative for Human Rights, Democracy and the Rule of Law, states that granting asylum to Snowden was a necessary step because of concern for possible human rights violations committed by American intelligence agencies.
He went on to point out the hypocrisy of America’s defense of human rights on an international level while ignoring issues at home. (He did not see the need to elaborate on Russia’s concern for human rights violations in Russia.)
In turn, Rhodes blames the lack of productive conversations topics between the American and Russian governments on Russia’s refusal to speak about arms control. So it’s Russia’s fault that Obama cancelled his trip. Which is an easier line than admitting to strong-arming the strong man himself, Putin, into dealing with Snowden in a way that didn’t best suit American interests.
America and Russia do not have an extradition treaty, so Putin is under no obligation to return Snowden to his home country. America, it seems, has failed to follow the golden rule of doing unto others what it would like done unto itself.
As Glenn Greenwald, the Guardian writer to whom Snowden originally gave the leaked files, puts it emphatically, “The U.S. constantly refuses requests to extradite - even where (unlike Russia) they have an extradition treaty with the requesting country and even where (unlike Snowden) the request involves actual, serious crimes, such as genocide, kidnapping, and terrorism.”
Snowden is not so much a lynchpin in Russian-American relations but rather a distraction from larger international problems that should be addressed. Lukyanov suggests talking about Asia or Arctic resources. Or what about online privacy for that matter? Dmitri Trenin, director of the Moscow Carnegie Center, tweets that “Snowden is a symptom.”the Carnegie Center’s website calling Snowden a “pretext” for ignoring larger issues at hand, like failure to agree on a course of action in Syria.
While most news outlets are decrying the cancellation of President Obama’s one-on-one visit with Russian President Vladimir Putin as “the end of the reset era,” there is a second perspective that highlights how America’s indignant response to Snowden’s Russian asylum actually proves how dependent these countries are on each other.
Certainly, the subject of the U.S.-Russian relationship is becoming an increasingly heated one, as The New Republic's Julia Ioffe found out, when her TV appearance on MSNBC's "The Last Word" became one of the most talked-about media events in the 48 hours after the Obama bombshell announcement.
Going forward, the two countries have a number of issues to discuss on the international level. As such, talk of a new Cold War seems premature. According to Julia Ioffe of The New Republic, this chapter in the Snowden saga will likely prove to be more of a trial separation than a divorce, as long as the leaders of both nations can avoid petty retribution and “tit-for-tattery.”