It is now (probably) the eighth day of fugitive Edward Snowden’s stay in Russia. After U.S. prosecutors charged Snowden with espionage for disclosing secret information about NSA surveillance, Russian President Vladimir Putin predictably denied a U.S. request to extradite him. Putin’s caveat, on the other hand, was less than predictable: He told a reporters at a Moscow news conference that “If [Snowden] wants to remain here there is one condition — he should stop his work aimed at inflicting damage on our American partners.” Just so everyone knew he was serious, he added, “no matter how strange this may sound coming from me.”
This isn’t the only eyebrow-raising statement Putin has made about Snowden and the PRISM affair. In an interview with Russia Today 11 days before Snowden fled to Russia, Putin seemed to defend the NSA’s spying, at least in principle:
“[Snowden] told us nothing we didn’t know before. I think everybody has long been aware that signals intelligence is about surveillance of individuals and organizations. It is becoming a global phenomenon in the context of combating international terrorism, and such methods are generally practicable. The question is how well those security agencies are controlled by the public. I can tell you that, at least in Russia, you cannot just go and tap into someone’s phone conversation without a warrant issued by court. That’s more or less the way a civilized society should go about fighting terrorism with modern-day technology. As long as it is exercised within the boundaries of the law that regulates intelligence activities, it’s alright. But if it’s unlawful, then it’s bad.” (Emphasis mine).
It’s a shame the RT correspondent didn’t follow up with a question about Putin’s former career. In the same interview, Putin also went on to defend U.S. drone strikes and declined to call “police cracking down on the Occupy Wall Street activists… appropriate or inappropriate,” though he did hint at the presence of a “double standard.”
It’s possible that Putin was shooting from the hip in his interview, and inadvertently committed himself to taking a particular stance when Snowden showed up at his doorstep. More likely, though, both Putin’s interview and his reaction to Snowden’s asylum request are parts of a consistent, well-planned strategy. This way, Putin can continue to embarrass the United States while maintaining consistency with existing Russian objectives.
The stereotypical response of autocrats is to respond to human-rights criticisms with complete denial. Putin is playing a more subtle game. Russian intelligence agencies have far more power than the NSA. Morally and legally equating United States’ drone strikes with Russian military policy (and Putin’s personal actions) is absurd, as is comparing periodic police abuse in the United States with the systematic suppression of political freedom in Russia, or the imprisonment of Pussy Riot. Nothing Putin could say will convince most people that Russia is a bastion of freedom. However, Putin doesn’t need worldwide acclaim — merely creating ambiguity or a perceived equivalency with the U.S. is a propaganda victory. Smearing the U.S.’ human rights credentials is a plus too, since U.S. military interventions (real and proposed) generally run counter to Russian geopolitical interests.
Putin’s stance also makes sense in the context of ongoing disputes between Russia and the US over extradition. Russia does not have an extradition treaty with the United States, and never extradites even serious criminals, claiming (wrongly) that it would be unconstitutional to do so. The Kremlin, in turn, is furious that the United States and European Union have sanctioned Russian officials for human rights violations. Refusing to extradite Snowden was thus consistent with Russia’s default position. However, by cautiously accepting Snowden instead of warmly embracing him, Putin may be signaling to President Obama that he’s willing to reach a tacit agreement. After all, the United States was willing to overlook Russian policy in Chechnya once the War on Terror started. President Obama is pragmatic enough that it’s not a stretch to believe he may back off new anti-Russia human rights measures as long as Russia does not proactively support dissidents embarrassing his own administration. Putin could also be maintaining his patronizing-yet-conciliatory tone to avoid unnecessary friction during negotiations with the United States over Syria.
This approach stands in contrast with Putin’s clear support for Julian Assange. Of course, this may say more about the difference between Assange and Snowden than about any change in Russia’s political objectives. Snowden has indicated that his goal is to expose a specific concern of U.S. citizens, and has claimed to be more selective than Wikileaks (although time will tell if that is truly the case). Assange, on the other hand, openly embraced an agenda of opposing U.S. foreign policy, and even accepted a gig as a Russian propagandist. (For more on the difference between Snowden and Manning/Assange, see this post.)
Whatever one’s opinion on NSA surveillance, Edward Snowden, or leakers in general, it is important to remember that other nations’ responses occur in a much larger context. If Snowden does not permanently end up in Russia, he will probably end up somewhere else with a poor human rights and civil liberties record. International criminal justice is just as much politics as principle, and that’s merely an unfortunate fact of life.