Putin keeps Obama, Washington on edge over Snowden end game

Vladimir Putin's surprise suggestion Monday that his country could accept an asylum request from Edward Snowden is raising new questions in Washington about what the mercurial Russia leader wants. [WATCH VIDEO]

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Experts on U.S.-Russia relations say the drama could imperil an already icy relationship between the United States and Russia as officials grapple with deciphering the complex motives driving Putin.

“The gloat factor may be almost as valuable as the intelligence gleaned from Snowden,” Michael Rubin, a resident scholar at the conservative-leaning American Enterprise Institute, said of how Putin is handling the National Security Agency leaker. 

“It’s not every day [that] a self-professed crusader for free speech and human rights voluntarily makes Russia their home.”

Snowden’s decision to seek political asylum in Russia added a challenging new chapter in the high-stakes diplomatic standoff over the NSA leaker’s fate.

In a statement released Monday through WikiLeaks, Snowden blasted Obama for behind-the-scenes efforts aimed to persuade countries to deny him asylum. 

"This kind of deception from a world leader is not justice, and neither is the extralegal penalty of exile," Snowden said. "These are the old, bad tools of political aggression. Their purpose is to frighten, not me, but those who would come after me."

News of Snowden's request to remain in Russia broke one day after new information from Snowden was revealed about the NSA’s efforts to spy on its European allies, including the alleged bugging of European Union offices in 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," Putin told reporters at a gas exporters' conference in Moscow, according to Reuters.

"If he wants to go away somewhere and someone will accept him there, by all means," Putin said.

The Russian leader also said that the country would never hand over Snowden to the United States, as President Obama has requested.


Putin’s cryptic and seemingly contradictory response to the request has sparked a round of speculation about the Russian president’s end game.

Rubin suggested that Putin might be seeking maximum leverage from Obama with Snowden.

“Even if Snowden doesn’t ultimately stay in Russia, the price Putin will seek to extract from Obama for Snowden’s departure has just increased exponentially,” he said.

Charles Kupchan, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, said authorities in Russia “have taken a certain pleasure in pulling America’s chain and in using the Snowden affair as a way of sticking their thumb in the eye of the United States, particularly when it comes to the issue of domestic surveillance and freedom issues.”

Kupchan added that allowing Snowden to remain in the Moscow airport allowed Putin to play “to the street,” earning him points domestically at the cost of U.S.-Russian relations.

But Putin runs significant risk in allowing the drama to play out — and could already be wary of the international drama.


John McLaughlin, former deputy director of the CIA, said Putin’s comments suggest Russia has “come to some conclusion that it’s not in their interest to be Snowden’s best pal right now.”

McLaughlin, who is currently a professor at the John Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, said that Snowden’s case is minor compared to the other issues the U.S. and Russia are dealing with, from the civil war in Syria to Iran and North Korea’s nuclear programs.

The Los Angeles Times reported Monday that Snowden met with Russian diplomats at the airport and provided a list of 15 countries where he wanted to apply for asylum, though it was not known which ones.

Andrew Kuchins, director of the Russia program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said that Putin’s demand that Snowden do no more harm to the U.S. came off as “disingenuous.”

“I think he’s enjoying the moment and kind of playing with this, that’s his style,” Kuchins said. “I don’t think Putin really wants him to stay. I don’t see what the Russians have to gain by it.”

Kupchan argued that Putin, who comes from the Russian security establishment, can understand — and relate to — the problems Snowden’s actions pose for the U.S.

“It’s hard for to me to believe that on some level he's not sympathetic to the Obama administration,” he said.

The U.S. has not taken a hard line toward Russia since Snowden flew from Hong Kong to Moscow, asking that Russia follow normal procedures with Snowden.

Snowden has allegedly remained in the Moscow airport’s transit zone.

Putin’s comments and Snowden’s asylum request came just as the U.S. has made several diplomatic moves in an effort to try and bring the NSA leaker back to U.S. soil to face espionage charges.

Vice President Biden called Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa over the weekend and asked him not to grant Snowden asylum.

Obama said in Tanzania on Monday that there have been “high-level discussions with the Russians about trying to find a solution to the problem.”

Russia’s RIA news agency reported Monday that Obama and Putin have told their security services to resolve the dispute.

Obama approached the issue diplomatically at a Monday press conference.

“We don't have an extradition treaty with Russia. On the other hand, Mr. Snowden, we understand, has traveled there without a valid passport, without legal papers,” Obama said.

Snowden, in his statement, said the U.S. is using his citizenship as a "weapon" to try and secure his capture. 

"Although I am convicted of nothing, it has unilaterally revoked my passport, leaving me a stateless person. Without any judicial order, the administration now seeks to stop me exercising a basic right. A right that belongs to everybody. The right to seek asylum," he said. 

The new developments on Snowden also come as Obama faces a backlash in Europe over one of Snowden’s leaks. The German news magazine Der Spiegel reported on NSA bugging the European Union’s offices in Washington, New York and Brussels.

Some politicians in Germany and France were calling for their countries to grant asylum to Snowden, as European leaders condemned the surveillance.

Secretary of State John Kerry tried to downplay the reports, saying that the spying on allies was “not unusual.”

National security experts said that it’s very likely that the European countries are engaged in similar activities, but that the outrage expressed was a required response for political reasons.

“The reaction is not just to the fact of this activity, but the fact that it’s been made public,” said Paul Pillar, a retired CIA intelligence officer and professor at Georgetown University’s Security Studies Program.

“It’s the sort of thing with an eye toward their own domestic public, they’re going to have to express a little bit of outrage,” he said.

“Going beyond that, it is something that will probably tip the balance of favors and annoyances in their direction the next time we lean on any of their countries.”