What the Snowden Affair taught us about the current state of U.S.-Russian relations and how they will develop in the future.


The Snowden effect will be long-lasting for U.S.-Russia relations. Photo: Reuters

The affair of the fugitive NSA contractor is past its climax. Well, let’s hope it is, at least. After Moscow granted asylum to Edward Snowden and Washington cancelled Barack Obama’s visit to Russia (separate from attending the G20), the score in the strange tit-for-tat contest is now 1–1. You might as well draw a line there. However, things may develop slightly differently.

For example, the U.S. may expand the Magnitsky list while Russia may overcome its doubts and turn Snowden into a propaganda broadcasting star exposing the hypocrisy of American champions of rights and freedoms.

You get the impression, though, that neither the Kremlin nor the White House has much appetite for that. Snowden caught everyone unaware, and both sides found themselves in a trap where political moves were dictated by circumstances, and not the other way around. Mistakes were bound to be made on both sides.

The Russian security agencies seem to have overlooked the moment when their Chinese counterparts, wishing to be on the safe side, sent the fugitive out of Hong Kong in the direction of Moscow. And having been dumped with this ‘gift’ they didn’t evaluate all the possible consequences of his presence in Russia and were too slow in sending their guest home, especially since he himself wished to be in another hemisphere.

The U.S. authorities, infuriated by the scandal provoked by Snowden, hastened to neutralize him, leaving him stranded in the Russian capital. Washington probably did not realize that the dissident’s stay in Moscow lent the incident much greater scale than if he had continued pouring his invectives out of a predictably anti-American Caracas or Havana.

Commentators in Russia and America are all too willing to discuss how the other government took advantage of the case of the NSA whistleblower to set up its opposite number. In reality, it looks as if the string of miscalculations forced the sides to act as they did.

As a result, Russia – out of its own inability to act quickly enough – did not arrange for his safe transit to a third country and found itself in a situation where it would have been morally and politically wrong not to give him asylum. The United States, having decided to turn an exotic and quite insignificant incident into a major political issue, could not afford to backtrack. As a result, everybody is unhappy about what happened.

The most frequently asked question after the Obama–Putin meeting was cancelled is how it will affect Russian-American relations. While it would be absurd to claim that the impact would be positive, now that it has happened, some positive aspects can be found. Bilateral ties between Russia and the United States, after a surge in 2009–2010, have since been stagnant. There was a perceived need to move forward, to breathe new life either in ‘reset 2’ or something else.

And, on both sides of the pond, doubts have been expressed more and more often as to whether these relations, once pivotal for world politics, still have priority status. Moscow’s reaction to Obama’s decision to continue arms control talks during his second term in office was a watershed of sorts. The reaction was not negative, but it was one of total indifference, a total lack of interest. It turned out, in the absence of the ever-present nuclear question, the grand agenda simply crumbles.

Discussing the hopeless Syrian situation or indeed other local conflicts does not even require the personal participation of the presidents; professional diplomats can do the job, especially since the current foreign ministers of both Russia and the United States are ace diplomats.

The Snowden case came at an opportune moment because it has demonstrated that there is nothing significant enough between Moscow and Washington to outweigh internal political games and ‘head-butting’ over matters of prestige. If it were not for this incident, Obama would have made his long-awaited visit. But aside from the very fact of the meeting and the signing of several sterile documents, the result would have been all for naught.

There is another kind of symbolism about the Snowden affair because of the role of China. It is unlikely that Beijing’s actions were prompted by some far-reaching plans; it simply did not want any extra problems with Washington and quickly got rid of a possible source of problems.

But on the face of it, China seems to have provoked a quarrel between the United States and Russia, whose interaction is not objectively in China’s interests. It signalled to the Americans that it is not looking for pretexts for a conflict and reminded the Russians with whom the country should seek a genuine partnership (i.e. China).

The paradox is that the worse Russia’s relations with America are, the more utilitarian becomes Beijing’s interest in Moscow, because it feels that global political logic would bring it closer to China in any case. So there is no need for China to strive to improve relations.

This oblique triangle formed by the world’s three most important countries is likely to shape the future Russian-American agenda, and it would be very different from the moribund list of Cold War topics. In the meantime, we should wait and see what happens to the ill-fated whistleblower from the NSA who clearly had not expected all the twists and turns.

The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff. It was first published in Russian in Rossiyskaya Gazeta.