The Chinese government made the decision to let Edward Snowden leave Hong Kong and travel by air to Moscow on Sunday. Hong Kong authorities have insisted that their decision was independent of Chinese involvement; however, many experts believe that matters of foreign policy are the domain of the Chinese government, and Beijing exercised that authority in allowing Snowden to go.
Now, Snowden appears to be considering his options as he lingers in the international area of that Moscow airport; Russian President Vladimir Putin has ruled out extraditing the whistleblower to the American government.
"Mr. Snowden is a free man ... The faster he chooses his ultimate destination, the better for us and for him," Putin reportedly commented to Russian news services.
Whatever final destination (if there is one) that Snowden is headed towards will undoubtedly strain relations between the country that decides to host him and the U.S. government. Having said that, the possible list of Snowden's final destinations being churned up by the rumor mill are all countries that hardly have harmonious ties with the U.S. government. Venezuela, Cuba, and now Russia and Ecuador have all been speculated as Snowden's final hideouts.
From China's point of view, analysts said, the departure of Snowden solved two concerns: how to prevent Beijing's relationship with the United States from being ensnared in a long legal wrangle in Hong Kong over Snowden, and how to deal with a Chinese public that widely regards the American intelligence analyst as a hero.
U.S.-China relations took a rare turn for the better when President Obama and his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping met in an informal setting to discuss outstanding issues between the two countries. Snowden went public exactly one day after the meeting between the two heads of state ended. The issue has since evolved to once again act as yet another thorn between the two countries' bilateral relations.
Jay Carney, White House spokesman, said relations between the U.S. and China would "unquestionably" be damaged as a result of Snowden's departure. "We are just not buying that this was a technical decision by a Hong Kong immigration official," said Carney. "This was a deliberate choice by the government to release a fugitive despite a valid arrest warrant, and that decision unquestionably has a negative impact on the U.S.-China relationship."
It still remains a mystery why the U.S. government did not cancel Snowden's passport before it did so on Saturday. Officials said his passport was revoked on Saturday; however, it was not clear whether the Hong Kong authorities knew that by the time he boarded the plane, nor was it clear whether revoking it earlier would have made a difference, given the Ecuadorean travel document that Wikileaks founder Julian Assange said he helped arrange.
While Snowden is in Moscow there is little the U.S. government can do to pressure the Russian government to arrest Snowden. If there is one country that can afford to take the blow and stand up to the U.S. government in this matter, it is Russia.
However, relations between the U.S. and Russia were undoubtedly dealt a fresh blow. Recently relations have been quite strained on issues pertaining to Syria, human rights, adoption laws, and nuclear arms.
The game of diplomatic cat-and-mouse set off by the Snowden case has quickly turned into an embarrassment for the Obama administration. Not only has the information released by Snowden severely damaged U.S. government credibility both at home and abroad, but it has also substantially weakened the U.S. position with regard to cyber-attacks from China. For the moment though, the position of the Obama administration seems all but reduced to observer status, as a wanted man threatens to become the one that got away.