One positive scenario might be a new level of Russian-U.S. cooperation on cyberspace.
Anatoly Kucherena (center), the Russian lawyer assisting former U.S. spy agency contractor Edward Snowden, speaks to the media at Sheremetyevo airport in Moscow July 24, 2013. Photo: Reuters
One ground for concern is the fact that Snowden's revelations have set off a chain of adverse effects in both Russia and the United States. Noting the former CIA operative's revelations, for example, Russian prosecutors have initiated checks on Russian Google and Facebook services, both of which authorities suspect of violating international agreements on automatically processing personal data.
The ongoing development of the situation around Snowden risks giving rise to a long-term toxic atmosphere for bilateral contacts and talks on a number of sensitive, single-point issues. These issues could include the exchange of exposed agents, the consideration of requests for the disclosure information on cybercriminals and suspected terrorists and extremists or the exchange of Russian and U.S. intelligence agencies' most effective practices in working with Big Data.
Moreover, Russia can now forget about prospects of the return of Viktor Bout or others facing court proceedings in the U.S. The White House, in turn, is on the brink of fiasco with regard to advancing its core values – Internet freedom and the protection of users' rights, which have already been severely compromised by Snowden's revelations – in Russia. Who knows how many more secrets the “prisoner of Sheremetyevo” has in reserve, or how much more difficult it will be for him to resist the temptation to share them with Russian intelligence services?
But is it all so dramatic, and does granting Snowden asylum really risk crossing a red line in Russian-American relations?
First of all, the Russian decision to give Snowden temporary asylum sends the White House a clear signal that Russia is willing to bargain further: “We can shelter him temporarily, but let us think beyond that.”
Also noteworthy is the condition, announced by Putin on the same day when the rumor about the possibility of Snowden's asylum in Russia first surfaced, that the fugitive must “cease harming the interests of the United States.”
Snowden's consent to follow this rule is therefore implicit in his accepting asylum. The Russian government almost certainly will lose no interest in accessing the information Snowden is holding, though the current agreement at least suggests that such information will remain an ace up the Russian diplomatic sleeve in a difficult hour in bilateral talks with Washington, though it cannot be shared with the international community.
Secondly, it is even more important to keep in mind that Russian-American relations are too diversified and strategic to be bogged down by a single scandal, no matter how loud it may resonate. Despite the downward trend in bilateral relations with the end of the “reset,” a number of matters demonstrates the presence in the Russian-American dialogue of an enormously substantial capacity for lasting cooperation and constructive development on issues closely related to Snowden.
The Russian-American record on confidence-building measures in cyberspace is a strong example of such cooperation. This cooperation has recently made substantial progress. On June 17, as one of the talking points of the G8 Summit in Ireland, Putin and Obama issued a joint statement on confidence-building measures in cyberspace that included three agreements.
Russia and the United States are now obliged to keep each other informed around the clock about cyberincidents and (attempts at) cyberattacks, to bolster national cooperation in responding to such incidents, and to make use of a hotline to warn each other about an emergency.
Symbolically, the mechanisms of mutual notification will be partially implemented through the existing Moscow-Washington hotline for reporting incidents involving nuclear weapons that was in use during the Cold War. Such continuity exemplifies the growing strategic significance of Russian-American cooperation in cyberspace.
For this reason, both sides reached agreement on cyberspace, even amidst unfavorable conditions in bilateral relations (although there might be questions as to where cooperation can be sacrificed due to the ongoing crisis and diplomatic scandal).
This diplomatic rule of continuity works in regard to Snowden; despite the enormous effect of the former CIA operative's revelations, the United States and Russia still must engage in good-neighborliness and collaborate in cyberspace, regardless of the heavy load of back-and-forth criticism and accusations.
Collaboration may be contracted or suspended in some aspects, but the history of technical, bilateral confidence-building measures must be developed as one of the viable mechanisms for preventing cyberwarfare. This is something that the Kremlin and the White House understand well.
The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.