When President Obama cancelled September's one-on-one meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin, he tried to explain it away as the culmination of a growing policy divide between the two nations. “We have reached the conclusion that there is not enough recent progress in our bilateral agenda with Russia to hold a U.S.-Russia Summit,” read the White House statement. “Given our lack of progress on issues such as missile defense and arms control, trade and commercial relations, global security issues, and human rights and civil society…we believe it would be more constructive to postpone the summit until we have more results from our shared agenda.”
About time! Over the past decade, Russia has thumbed its nose not only at the agenda of the United States, but at the fundamental belief in liberal democracy that is the foundation of Western society. Since inheriting Russia’s fledgling, oligarchic democracy from Boris Yeltsin in 2000, Putin has all but crushed it, allowing less and less berth to either side of him while accumulating a degree of power not seen since the Soviet Union. Under his regime Russia has grown friendly to horrendous violations of press freedoms, the persecution of political opponents, and most insidiously, a lull back into authoritarianism that the citizenry recalls with muscle memory. Most of this oppression is done openly. Obama saying that a gulf has opened between America and Russia is an understatement.
Except hang on, there’s more: “Russia’s disappointing decision to grant Edward Snowden temporary asylum was also a factor that we considered in assessing the current state of our bilateral relationship.” Come to think of it, the two leaders did meet on June 17 of this year, when all of the above about the pitiful state of Russian government was true, but before a 30-year-old computer nerd exposed Obama’s own Putinesque violation of civil liberties.
Americans should be outraged that the freedom of a political refugee — our political refugee — is the foremost among a multitude of grievances that we have with Russia. For the crime of enabling, for the first time, the possibility of “the consent of the governed,” Snowden has leapfrogged assassinations, false imprisonments, and sham elections as a primary policy concern of the United States vis-à-vis Russia. They may be speeding like a nuclear train toward autocracy, but it is their grant of freedom to one whistleblower working for the benefit of Americans that has most eroded the common ground between the two uncomfortable allies.
For Edward Snowden’s part, he should take satisfaction in the irony that he’s unwittingly brought the anti-liberty policies of both nations to the American mainstream. His exposure of the U.S. government’s shadowy surveillance apparatus has gone basically without a hitch. When he set out on this mission, though, he probably would have been delighted to know that his flight from American law would eventually prove to be the straw that broke the camel’s back and triggered an overdue display of protest from the United States toward the criminal Putin government.
Even if the present sanction is skipping one awkward meeting, denouncing Putin at all is an important statement. No less a public platform than The Tonight Show heard Obama acknowledge of the Kremlin that “there have been times where they slip back into Cold War thinking and a Cold War mentality.” Those times being, presumably, whenever a reporter writes a story exposing corruption, when any political opposition arises, when a businessman acquires too much money, or when free speech is exercised. "Slipping back" indeed. All of the above represent the forcible reversal of Russia’s democratic impulse of the past 25 years, and it is deplorable.
Each of these forms of domestic oppression falls, according to the Obama administration, under the category of “lack of progress on…human rights and civil society,” a factor less strategically important to our relationship with Russia than arms, trade, and global militarism. On these counts it’s hard for the United States to point any fingers, but it is inarguable that by supporting repressive governments in Iran and Syria, Russia stands in direct opposition to American foreign policy. By refusing to cooperate with Obama’s non-proliferation agenda, it prizes outdated warheads and rhetoric over a denuclearized landscape. And by criminalizing homosexuality, it is reopening an ugly history of pogroms and social cleansing that the civilized world thought it had done away with.
Russia’s accelerating clash with the interests and, especially, values of the United States is the context against which the issue of Edward Snowden’s non-extradition looks indescribably petty. Yet, it is apparently the single question that most divides the two countries.
In fact, the frosting-over of this diplomatic relationship is something of a redemption for Snowden. Until now he had just been a civic-minded hacker who decried the anti-liberty practices of a democracy by fleeing to a country that maintains a gulag system for political dissidents. Now, however, his asylum may have created enough of a rift between our government and Russia’s to allow Washington to give a more fully throated opposition to the Russian government's various misdeeds.
Last week, this site debated whether the United States should boycott the 2014 Sochi Olympics as a response to Russia’s anti-gay legislation. It seemed arbitrary: Homophobia is far from that government’s only violation of the principles of democratic liberty. The assassination of journalists and the jailing of dissidents is every bit as worrisome as Russia posing a “gay question.” If the developed world is to turn against Russia, as we should (personally I don’t think an Olympic boycott is the best way to do it), why limit ourselves to one issue of contention?
The same question stands for why President Obama chose the occasion of Edward Snowden’s asylum to make a stand against the Kremlin. They are a criminal junta who take advantage of the West’s silence to oppress their country, and the West should finally respond back loudly. If only every country had an Edward Snowden to prod its the conscience, maybe we would.