Snowden case a gift for Putin, a wounding rebuff for Obama

The idea isn't a bad one. A more co-operative Kremlin might help the White House with its pressing international problems – the war in Syria, the United States military draw-down in Afghanistan, Iran's nuclear programme.

Last week, however, bilateral relations appeared anything but reset as Edward Snowden – dressed in a grey shirt and carrying a dark backpack – strolled out of Moscow's Sheremetyevo International Airport. He had been holed up there for five and a half weeks, ever since he slipped out of Hong Kong. Now he was free.

Russian President Vladimir Putin's decision to grant Snowden asylum – and make no mistake, Putin called this one – is a humiliating, wounding rebuff to the US. In theory, Snowden has been allowed to stay for one year. In reality, he is learning Russian and ploughing his way through Fyodor Dostoyevsky. Snowden's stay in Russia could be indefinite.

Among other things, the Snowden story has exposed the impotence of 21st-century US power. With no US-Russia extradition treaty in place, there is little the White House can do to winkle Snowden out. It can, of course, express displeasure. Obama is likely to cancel a trip to St Petersburg for the G20 summit in September.

The irony, as Senator John McCain was quick to point out, is that Moscow's record on human rights and freedom of speech is far worse than Washington's. While Snowden was stuck at the airport, the opposition leader Alexei Navalny got five years in jail. (Navalny was promptly granted bail following his provincial show trial, apparently amid Kremlin infighting.)

Since returning for a third term as president, Putin has moved to crush mass protests against his rule. He has introduced a series of repressive laws against human rights organisations, selectively arrested leading critics and jailed the feminist punk band Pussy Riot.

Russia's treatment of its own whistle-blowers is grim and awful. Think Anna Politkovskaya, shot dead in Moscow in 2006, or Natalia Estemirova, kidnapped in Chechnya's capital Grozny in 2009 and murdered. Last month, Sergei Magnitsky, a lawyer who exposed massive fraud at the interior ministry, was convicted of tax evasion. Magnitsky was an unusual defendant: he was already dead.

All of this provides ammunition to Snowden's critics. They seek to portray him not as an heroic information activist but as a traitor and a spy. They point out, correctly, that Russia's surveillance state is nasty and intrusive. The FSB, the successor to the KGB, has more extensive secret powers than the National Security Agency. It can snoop on anyone, and it frequently does.

Ultimately, the US has only itself to blame for this Cold War-style mess. You can hardly fault Snowden for wanting to avoid the fate of Bradley Manning, who, after his recent conviction for espionage, faces 136 years in jail. The US has taken a vengeful attitude towards those who leak classified information. It cancelled Snowden's passport. It (wrongly) forced down the plane of Bolivia's president because of a rumour Snowden was aboard. Snowden wasn't exactly left with many options.

For Putin, meanwhile, Snowden is a wonderful gift. By granting the American asylum, he can pose as the champion of human rights in the face of US aggression. Russia's

president is already a master of "whataboutism" – indeed, it is practically a national ideology. (Whenever visiting Western heads of state complain about Russia's alleged democratic failings, Putin points to their own record with the words: "What about …?")

On the face of it, Snowden's situation appears rosy, though as his lawyer admitted on Thursday, he misses his girlfriend. Over time, his position may seem less alluring. Russia's spy agencies will keep a close and unfaltering watch over their new guest, not just now but in the years and decades to come. – © Guardian News & Media 2013

Luke Harding is a foreign correspondent at the Guardian

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