With more at stake, US and Russia cool war of words over l'Affaire Snowden

The Edward Snowden affair elicited a round of threats and needling from US and Russian officials, but the two powers have appeared to pull back, mindful they have more consequential mutual interests.

Sergei Grits/AP
Transit passengers eat at a cafe with a TV screen with a news program showing a report on Edward Snowden, in the background, at Sheremetyevo airport in Moscow Wednesday.

After the threats and the needling over the Edward Snowden affair, the United States and Russia appear to be settling down and accepting the reality that the two world powers have little choice but to live and work together.

The arrival at Moscow’s international airport Sunday of Mr. Snowden, the former National Security Agency contractor wanted by American authorities for leaking top-secret information on US surveillance programs, had US officials beginning with Secretary of State John Kerry warning Russia Monday of the “consequences” it risked if it didn’t turn over the fugitive.

And Russian President Vladimir Putin appeared to be getting a bit of a thrill at the expense of the US as he made the case Tuesday for not turning over Snowden on the grounds of human rights – an issue the US Congress and many US NGOs cite in their criticisms of the Russian government.

But after the venting and the fun, both sides are pulling back to more reasoned positions. The changed tone reflects a mutual desire not to let the Snowden affair spoil the chances of the US and Russia pursuing more long-term and consequential mutual interests, including a political solution in Syria and continued cooperation on nuclear issues.

Secretary Kerry toned down his words, saying the US is not looking for a “confrontation” with Russia or any other country, and Mr. Putin said he did not wish to see the Snowden tempest “affect in any way the businesslike character of our relations with the United States.”

Even as Snowden reportedly remained at Moscow’s airport Wednesday – speculation bubbled that he might take Thursday’s scheduled Moscow-to-Havana flight before continuing to Ecuador, a country he has petitioned for asylum – some officials and US-Russia experts said they expect relations between the two powers to simmer down to where they were before the Snowden affair.

In other words, functioning and respectful, if not exactly warm or characterized by a long list of common perspectives. 

“I do hope and expect that whatever has been traded between us [over the Snowden affair] is not going to affect our relations and the other important issues we have to deal with,” says Sergey Kislyak, the Russian Federation’s ambassador to Washington.

Noting that Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov are scheduled to meet next week to discuss Syria, Ambassador Kislyak says “Syria is too important an issue to both of us” for the two countries to get sidetracked by the Snowden case.

“Arguably it [Syria] is more important to us, given its closer proximity to us and the threat of spillover,” he adds, “so no, we don’t want other things to get in the way.”

In early May, Kerry and Mr. Lavrov agreed on a plan for holding an international conference to reach a political settlement of Syria’s conflict, but little progress has been made since then. United Nations officials now say they see little chance a conference could still be organized for July, the most recent target date for the meeting.

Some US-Russia experts who focus on what they say is a grave deterioration of political rights and freedoms in Russia under Putin insist that the US is simply playing into Moscow’s hand by pursuing relations. The Obama administration simply stands by, they say, as Russian officials deflect attention from rising rights abuses in Russia by turning up their criticisms of the US.

“The Russian government demonizes us on the one hand … and yet they want to meet with us and to be legitimized by us,” says David Kramer, president of Freedom House in Washington.

Others take a realist view of the relationship and find there are just too many common interests between the two powers for the US to make a point by reducing US-Russia contacts.

“We don’t need to praise the way Russia” is governed, “but there are things we want in the world” – stopping Iran’s nuclear progress, reining in North Korea, cooperation on terrorism – “and in many of these areas, Russia plays an important role,” says Paul Saunders, executive director of the Center for the National Interest in Washington.

While it’s true that in many of their common interests, the US and Russia have “somewhat different priorities,” Mr. Saunders insists there are no American interests “that are directly opposed to a vital Russian interest.” And that reality, he says, argues for maintaining the relationship and not letting it be derailed even by legitimate concerns like the state of human rights in Russia.

But Mr. Kramer says the US has got very little from Moscow in exchange for the Obama administration’s “de-linkage” of human rights issues from US pursuit of other areas of cooperation with Russia.

In fact given the little common ground he sees between the two governments, and what he considers to be the corrosive manner in which the Russians use the US-Russia relationship, Kramer says he sees little reason for Obama to take part in the summit scheduled with Putin for September.        

“I don’t know what they’re going to talk about, frankly,” he says.

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