Russia is now in a high stakes, heads-up diplomatic poker game versus the United States may be considering exchanging Edward Snowden for Viktor Bout.
Snowden is currently on the run for having spilled the "beans" on what is arguably the largest security breach the United States has ever suffered. He is currently holed up in a terminal in Moscow's Sheremtyevo airport, a sort of "no mans Land" a diplomatic euphemism, you or I would already be in a jail cell...
Reuters — quoting Russia’s RIA news agency — reported Monday that President Barack Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin have told their security services to resolve the standoff over Snowden. President Obama confirmed those reports Monday at a press conference in Africa where he said there are “high level discussions” underway with Russia to find a solution over the extradition of Snowden. This does not in itself confirm or imply that Russia will extradite Snowden to the U.S. That being said, one needs to pay attention to the messages and meanings hidden within officially-made statements by both countries. Let us review a few of those messages:
President Vladimir Putin says NSA leaker Edward Snowden may stay in Russia, if he wants to, but only if he stops activities aimed against the United States:
“If he wants to stay here, there is one condition: He must stop his work aimed at harming our American partners, as strange as that sounds coming from my lips, if he wants to go away somewhere and someone will accept him there, by all means,” Putin said.
That comment appears to be a major shift by Putin who had rebuffed U.S. calls to extradite Snowden. So what gives? What did recent high-level discussions (or bargaining) between the Russian and U.S. governments entail?
Let us examine another statement by Putin that may give us the answer:
“Russia has never extradited anyone and is not going to do so. Same as no one has ever been extradited to Russia.”
This statement brings to mind a certain someone who was not extradited to Russia despite all requests and pressure from the Russian government.In 2008, on request from the United States, Viktor Bout (the man who inspired the movie Lord of War) was arrested in Thailand on charges of "conspiracy to kill Americans and U.S. officials" and of supplying arms to the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Columbia (FARC), which the U.S. government lists as a terrorist organization.
In April 2012, a U.S. judge sentenced the Russian businessperson to 25 years in jail, five years of supervised release, and a $15 million fine. Bout was charged with conspiracy to acquire and export surface-to-air anti-aircraft missiles. U.S. prosecutors had sought a life sentence for conspiracy to murder US citizens, but the judge found the charges unfounded.
At the time, the Justice Department has turned down Russia’s request to extradite Bout, based on the seriousness of the crimes with which he was charged. Moscow condemned the decision, and has since been advocating for Bout emphasizing that he had not committed any crimes against the U.S. or American citizens.
Now, if we re-read this recent statement by Putin, Russia has never extradited anyone and is not going to do so. Same as no one has ever been extradited to Russia, while bearing in mind the Viktor Bout parallels, one can visualize the bargaining chips coming to life.
Last week the following statement seems to confirm the possibility of the bargain taking shape:
“It could be handled differently if not for two words: Viktor Bout,” said The New Republic’s Julia Ioffe, referring to the Russian arms smuggler who was captured in Thailand and taken to the U.S. for trial, Bout is currently in prison in the U.S.
“The Russians were about as mad at that as we are about Edward Snowden. Moreover, we did not extradite him as Russia asked. I think maybe the Americans would have been able to get a better deal before Victor Bout,” said Ioffe.
That was last week. This week, with the recent shifts in the Russian government’s stand and tone I am visualizing a high stakes, heads up, poker game: Russia with Snowden chips, the U.S. with Bout chips.