A week and a few hours after Edward Snowden touched down in Moscow, a week spent confined to the transit-zone hotel at Sheremetyevo airport and somehow still managing to leak things about the NSA's operations in Europe, he did the inevitable and asked Russia for asylum.
To which I say, I told you so. Last week, I wrote that Snowden is unlikely to leave Russia, though it looks like it is not only for the reasons—sticking it to Uncle Sam—that I enumerated. Ironically, it is the U.S. that assured that Snowden would get bogged down in Russia's historically sticky bogs. For the last few days, the U.S. has been working overtime to put pressure on countries that could potentially take Snowden to deny him entry. This culminated in Vice President Joe Biden calling Ecuadorian president Rafael Correa to kindly ask him not to grant asylum to Snowden. Correa, who is a kind of mentee to the late Hugo Chavez and has made his name in part on anti-American populism, took the unusual step of mentioning what he called a "cordial" conversation in his weekly television address. That seemed to spell the end of Snowden's Ecuadorian asylum application, and then Correa said that "it is up to the Russian authorities whether he can leave the Moscow airport for an Ecuadorian embassy."
Then the Russians weighed in. Earlier last week, when it became clear to them that Snowden was not just passing through—and maybe sharing his trove of data—and that this was pissing off the Americans more than the Russians anticipated, Russia's President Valdimir Putin hinted that Snowden was becoming a bit of a headache. "The sooner he chooses his final destination, the better," he said. Today he spoke again, saying, as I predicted, that Russia would not hand over Snowden, in part to show that it is just as sovereign and strong a nation as America, and that Russia takes no commands from nobody. “Russia never gives up anyone to anybody and is not planning to,” Putin said.
But then came the twist: “If he wants to go somewhere and they accept him, please, be my guest. If he wants to say here, there is one condition: He must cease his work aimed at inflicting damage to our American partners, as strange as it may sound from my lips.” What? Since when does Russia make people stop "inflicting damage on our American partners"? Is it a violation of Russia's America-baiting monopoly?
Unlikely. As I've written before, Russia—well, Putin—is not hostile to the U.S. when it thinks the U.S. finds itself in a position with which it can empathize. For example, in the wake of the Boston Marathon bombings, Putin was the first to reach out to the U.S., just as he was the first world leader to call George W. Bush on 9/11. Russia has an insurgency and terrorist training camps on its own terroritory, and has been battling these guys for well over a decade. And it sees terrorism as a universal, largely undiferentiated foe, so it is in its interests to link up its efforts with the U.S. in fighting it. Thus, we've seen an unprecedented level of cooperation in counter-terrorism activities between the two countries, as well as in places like Afghanistan.
So too here. Russia spies actively on its citizens—as well as on foreign citizens who happen to be in town—and, as Putin has made perfectly clear, he does not approve of Snowden's work. In fact, he fears it. Thus, last year, the Kremlin pushed through a law protecting "state secrets." It criminalizes, for both leaker and journalist, the kinds of leaks for which Snowden is responsible, and would have resulted in fines and jail time for both Snowden and Glenn Greenwald. Moreover, it would classify such leaks as espionage. Sound familiar?
Still, it is amazing to see Putin take the opportunity and use it to look both like a defiant frenemy and a cooperative ally. Remember what it feels like, though: We won't be seeing this again for a while.
Next thing to watch for: There were reports that Snowden's asylum request was filed by Sarah Harrison, the WikiLeaks advisor that was traveling with him. The group has, either out of my-enemy's-enemy necessity or out of something more, been friendly with Russian officials, especially the state-sponsored propaganda outlet, Russia Today, which, last year, gave Assange a show.