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Edward Snowden is Stuck in Russia, and Obama Can't Do Anything About It

It's been nearly a month since NSA leaker Edward Snowden landed in Moscow, en route to Ecuador. In the meantime, Vice President Joe Biden has been twisting arms around the world, Obama has gotten Putin on the horn, a dozen countries have had to make public statements denying the young Snowden asylum, a presidential plane has been grounded—for which Spain has had to apologize, Snowden has held a press conference with no journalists, and applied, finally, for temporary asylum in Russia. And yet nothing has really changed: Russia is still stuck with him, America still, hopelessly, angrily, wants him back, and Snowden has yet to leave the transit zone at Sheremetyevo. (Though he may, according to Russian reports, have to be tested for HIV, tuberculosis, and syphilis.)

The comedy of circumstance that began with his showing up, allegedly unanounced, in Moscow, has become the new reality—mostly because the Obama administration can't do anything about it. In fact, now that it's come down to really calling in those "partnership" chits to extradite Snowden, the White House is waking up to the fact that, two decades after the end of the Cold War, and even after the "reset," there are really no chits, or leverage, left to speak of. 

Biden can call Ecuador's president and drive home the point that, should they take in Snowden, the U.S. will no longer be a market for Ecuador's massive flower industry. Biden could theoretically call Putin and say...what? U.S. and Russia don't have much of an economic relationship to begin with. In fact, according to the U.S. government, Russia is our "20th largest goods trading partner." Twentieth! 

What about geopolitical leverage? Well, that's a tough one, mostly because all this "partnership" with Russia over Obama's two terms has been over issues for which the U.S. needs Russia, and not vice versa. Russian cooperation on Afghanistan was giving America a transit point in Ulyanovsk and letting American military planes fly to Afghanistan through Russian air space. Russia gets a little local economic boost from it in a remote part of the Russian steppe, sure, but does Russia need it? No. Does America? Definitely. Moreover, it's an issue that will be moot very soon as American troops pull out. 

Where else? Iran? Well, there, Russia has been cooperative sometimes, but only when it wants to be. Most of the time, it drags its feet, sticks sticks in the wheels, and other such obstreperous metaphors. The U.N. Security Council? The most helpful the Russians have been is an abstention on intervention in Lybia. The rest of the time, it's veto this, veto that. In fact, in Syria, while Obama wrings his hands over how to handle the civil war there, the Russians have been actively supplying Assad with weapons and propping up his imploding economy. We'd like them to stop, and we've said so, and, well, they haven't. 

"The main problem in U.S.-Russian relations is that the two countries have almost nothing to talk about," writes Fyodr Lukyanov, editor of Russia in Global Affairs. "Their agenda is limited to a few international conflicts (Syria, Iran and Afghanistan) and is bound to become even more limited in the future."

No one in the administration would talk to me on the record about this—Snowden's example has suddenly made everyone believe in the extreme "sensitivity" of the issue—but there was a pretty unanimous, if grudging, understanding in those quarters that the U.S. really had no real leverage it could use to make Russia turn over Edward Snowden. 

Perhaps sensing this, Jay Carney, at yesterday's White House briefing, hinted, by way of omission, that, if Putin didn't hand over Snowden, maybe Obama would perhaps skip his bilateral meeting with Putin in Moscow in September. But Obama would probably still go to St. Petersburg for the G20 that month. Take that, Putin?

Here's the thing, America: Russia is not going to give you Snowden just because you asked for him. It's just not how the Russians do things, especially not after they asked for weapons dealer Viktor Bout and didn't get him. (Especially not after the Russian propaganda machine has kicked into full gear, hailing Snowden as a whistleblower who would be mistreated and executed in America.) There's not much the U.S. can offer Russia, and not much it can hold over its head. And the things it can hold over its head, it won't.

Everyone piled on Senator Lindsey Graham when he suggested that the U.S. boycott the Winter Olympics in Sochi unless Russia extradites Snowden. It's crazy, yes, but Graham is onto something: Putin is obsessed with the Sochi Olympics. It is, for him, on many levels, an absolute coup to be able to host the event and show the world that Russia is a great geopolitical and athletic power. He personally lobbied the International Olympic Committee to win the bid. The U.S. saying that their participation in Sochi is suspended because of Snowden would not be about the Olympics, but about Putin and his prestige. It would be like that oddball upstart in school finally getting to throw a really big party, and the most popular girl in the class skipping it on purpose. In a situation where you have no leverage, this is some pretty good leverage. And yet, today, both the U.S. Olympic Committee and the White House said they would not be boycotting Sochi. 

That leaves us with the bilateral meeting. Okay, that's not bad, but even better would be skipping the G20 in St. Petersburg to begin with, thereby shocking the Russian stock markets a little bit and sending a pretty strong signal. But the White House would never do that. And it's probably bluffing about the bilateral, too—and Putin knows it. 

If at first Putin seemed pained by the dilemma of what to do with Snowden—a person he, a former spook, sees as a snitch, but in public refers to as a human rights activist—increasingly, he is becoming comfortable with the status quo. "Bilateral relations, in my opinion, are much more important than the squabbles around the activities of the security services," he said on Wednesday. In other words, even if I keep him, you won't be mad, right? (What's an Edward Snowden between friends!) Instead of fretting about whether Snowden would "harm our American partners," Putin seems pretty blasé about the whole thing, perhaps because he's done the calculus, too.