How Russia gains from sheltering Edward Snowden
Vladimir Putin is a little man with a penchant
for big catches. Just a few days ago he reeled
in a huge pike, weighing 21 kilograms, if the
Kremlin press service is to be believed. Then
he kissed it.
On August 1 he hooked another.
Edward Snowden slipped quietly out of the
transit area of Moscow's Sheremetyevo
airport and disappeared into the Russian
capital, there to pursue his reading of
Dostoyevsky. He has apparently already read
Crime and Punishment.
Snowden is the man who leaked the NSA's
global spying secrets and is being sought by
the U.S. government. It wants him extradited
back to face trial on charges that presumably
would be similar to those Private Bradley
Manning has just faced for sending over
700,000 government documents to WikiLeaks.
Manning was convicted of 20 counts of
espionage and theft but not of the most
serious charge of "aiding the enemy."
Washington expressed its anger and
disappointment at President Putin. Snowden
expressed his thanks at being given a one-
year Russian asylum visa. "Over the past
weeks we have seen the Obama
administration show no respect for
international or domestic law, but in the end
the law is winning," he said.
A show tool
The law is winning? These words have a
distinctly bizarre ring in the shadow of the
The little man who presides there
treats the law like his fishing
expeditions: as a tool for show. And
the show is designed to intimidate.
There were the two trials of Mikhail
Khodorkovsky, once one of Russia's
richest men, now in prison for a
tenth year and facing four more.
His second trial, for theft and
embezzlement, was described by
the International Bar Association's
Human Rights Institute as
There was also the recent
conviction of Alexei Navalny, the
emerging face of the opposition
protests against Putin last year.
The U.S. and the European Union
both said the trial raised questions
about the rule of law in Russia.
Both men were seen by Putin as
political threats, threats to be
removed. The trials merely added
the window-dressing of legality.
Tit for tat
The most grotesque of Russia's
recent trials was that of Sergei
Magnitsky, a Russian accountant
On July 11, while Snowden was
sitting in the transit lounge at Moscow's
airport, Magnitsky was found guilty of fraud
and tax evasion. He did not attend his trial;
he had been dead for three and a half years.
Magnitsky's real crime, according to his
family and business associates, was to have
unearthed a massive fraud scheme run by
Russian tax officials themselves, and then to
have reported it to the police.
For this he was thrown into prison, beaten,
mistreated and denied proper medical
treatment. He died in prison.
The world's reaction surprised and infuriated
the Kremlin. The U.S. Senate passed the so-
called Magnitsky Act, and President Barack
Obama signed it into law.
It lists Russian officials declared complicit in
the imprisonment, mistreatment and death of
Magnitsky and bars their entry into the U.S.
and their use of American banking
The Kremlin and the Russian parliament
reacted with measures of their own.
All Russian aid or human rights' groups
receiving subsides from abroad were ordered
to register as "foreign agents." Americans
were barred from adopting Russian children.
And then came Snowden. Putin's first
reaction was to speak soothing words;
Snowden's presence in Moscow's airport was
not to be allowed to damage relations with
But as the weeks dragged on and the
revelations of NSA snooping kept coming, the
reaction, particularly in Europe, was
increasingly unsettled and angry.
In Russia itself, Snowden was
seen almost as a hero,
according to opinion polls.
Almost half polled said he
should be given asylum.
For Putin, there was little to
worry about, perhaps a
cancelled meeting with Obama.
He would be twisting no law;
there is no extradition treaty
with the U.S. Trade sanctions
would be harmless.
Russia's trade with the U.S. is
small. It does four times more
business with Germany (where
there has already been large pro-Snowden
rallies). It has the fourth highest foreign
currency reserves in the world -- $525
And on the Middle East, particularly over
Syria, the two countries are already in open
Thus the temporary asylum visa.
Snowden, in the Putinesque scheme of
things, is not a small fish, but neither is he a
He is a medium fish, hooked, on the line and
allowed to roam until he exhausts his
He doesn't need to be kissed; the medium
fish, swimming semi-free, has offered a kiss
of his own with words of praise for the rule
of law in the shadow of the Kremlin.