Edward Snowden. Photo via The Guardian.
American President Barack Obama’s cancellation of the scheduled meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin comes as a time of great Russia-U.S. tensions over the most recent development in the case of Edward Snowden. While this cancellation comes at a moment which lends itself to a degree of misunderstanding, it is actually largely a case of bad timing. The Snowden issue is not, according to many experts, the main impetus for Obama’s cancellation.
President Obama has been wise to keep his appointment at the G-20 Summit in St. Petersburg, Russia, and has most likely made the right decision to cancel his scheduled one-on-one with Putin. This latter point comes mostly because it could be incredibly awkward for Messieurs Obama and Putin to have such high-level bilateral talks in the aftermath of such a hot button issue (a more informal meeting, such as that on the sidelines in Northern Ireland this past June, is more appropriate).
Yet Putin’s top-down approval to grant Snowden a year’s asylum shows an incredible disregard for his country’s relationship with the U.S. President Obama has stated that Putin is using tactics from the old Cold War playbook, and that it's time to start thinking about the future instead of living in the past. Nevertheless, the issue of Edward Snowden is not a proper metric for a holistic analysis of the state of affairs between two countries.
Dmitri Simes, a Russia expert at the Center for the National Interest (formerly the Nixon Center) and James Collins, former U.S. ambassador to Russia, have both argued that the meeting was cancelled primarily because of a perceived lack of tangible benefits to having a summit, because of a lack of progress on a multitude of issues. BBC diplomatic correspondent Jonathan Marcus presciently points out that, though Russia is not nearly as powerful or influential as the United States these days, unlike the cold war era, it's still difficult for both states to find ways to cooperate that are mutually beneficial.
The Kremlin’s expression of “disappointment” at President Obama’s cancellation may be a combination of a general diplomatic response, as well as a feeling that Russia is once again being snubbed by the U.S. Obama's willingness to attend the summit in St. Petersburg may show that while Russia is indeed an important part of the G-20 emerging nations, especially since it currently holds the presidency, it does not hold a place on the global stage to merit such high-level bilateral talks. This will obviously upset a Russia still trying to find its place in the world, one that is sensitive to any perceived slights to its greatness. Granting Snowden asylum may be one way in which Russia can “get back” at the U.S. in a subtle yet unmistakable way.
Thus, while the Snowden issue is not the single, all-defining reason for Obama’s cancellation, and probably does not necessarily mark a watershed moment in Russia-U.S. relations, one crucial aspect of Snowden’s offer and acceptance of asylum is the very real possibility of a national security threat to the U.S. in the realm of intelligence and espionage.
Previously I wrote about the need for greater, yet very carefully-managed intelligence cooperation between Russia and the United States. Despite the debacle involving Snowden, this should still be a goal for the U.S. on issues of mutual interest with Russia. As an example, the FSB and FSKN may have greater access to the terrorist holdouts in the North Caucasus or the drug hubs in Central Asia than U.S. federal authorities may have (see my “Cooperation and Geopolitics in the Central Asian Drug Trade” from this past May).
In that previous post on Russian-American intelligence affairs, however, I also highlighted that there was a high level of Russian intelligence operations in the U.S., and that U.S. counterintelligence measures against Russian penetration were absolutely necessary. After all, the distance between the American President and the Intelligence Community is not the reality in Russia, and there may be some behind-the-scenes exchange of favors going on: namely, that in return for asylum, Snowden must provide more, incredibly valuable, information about the inner workings of U.S. intelligence, with Putin’s conditional exhortation to Snowden to “stop harming our American partners” a mere publicity stunt.
Russia’s decision to grant Snowden a year’s asylum in Russia may be an opportunistic move on their part, where a former U.S. intelligence officer is in need. One risk for Snowden is that, after his year-long asylum has expired, he may be the object of a prisoner exchange or spy swap, in exchange for Russian assets captured and imprisoned by U.S. authorities. Snowden is undoubtedly a political embarrassment for the Obama Administration, and the possibility of exchanging Russian assets for Snowden may be a card Putin is willing to play. The focus on the granting of asylum should not be on that fact in and of itself, but on the temporal nature of it. After a year Snowden’s fate may be uncertain again, and that year may be all the Russian intelligence services need to get information from someone who has had inside access to the U.S.I.C. and will never again be allowed into that world. In other words, the length of Snowden’s usefulness to Russia depends on how much he divulges.
Granting asylum to Snowden undoubtedly harms Russia-U.S. relations, at least in the short term. But it should also be understood in the larger context of this bilateral relationship. Overall, what this situation may be more indicative of is that Russia and the United States, while able to cooperate on macro-scale issues such as counter-terrorism and nuclear reductions, may enter into a relationship similar to that between China and the U.S., where the relationship is bifurcated between robust commercial ties and limited cooperation on some important issues, and heated geopolitical tensions, with sporadic irritants in between.
Likewise, Russia-U.S. relations may well also be defined by strong business ties and other areas of bilateral cooperation combined with the throbbing geopolitical tensions over Ukraine, the Caucasus and Central Asia. The recent repeal of the antiquated Jackson-Vanik Agreement in the U.S., combined with Russia’s recent accession to the WTO has the potential to boost Russia-U.S. trade relations, and recent developments in mutual agreements to reduce nuclear stockpiles are also a cause for hope. Espionage in general is a whole different area, where even purported allies back stab each other. But even in these cases, long-term damage is unlikely. Consider the famous case of nuclear scientist Wen Ho Lee, who filtered nuclear secrets to China. Such activities did not unduly disrupt certain aspects of China-U.S. relations, specifically in the realm of trade. It also does not seem to have had any major impact on China’s military buildup and increased projection into the South China Sea, which is a famous sore point for China and the U.S.
Perhaps all of this indicates the fundamental flaw of President Obama’s 2009 “reset” with Russia. It’s difficult to reset relations which a country that does not have a firm raison d’etat and with which the power and influence dynamic is asymmetric. Much as with the case of a rising China, Russia must first find and secure its footing on the world stage before the U.S. can properly define its relationship with Russia.