Russia on Thursday became the first country to take formal action assisting fugitive National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden in his battle with the US government – plunging already testy US-Russia relations to what some experts say are their lowest level since the cold war.
Russia granted Mr. Snowden temporary refugee status – valid for one-year and renewable – allowing him to leave Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport, where the former intelligence contractor who leaked details of secret telephone and e-mail surveillance programs had been holed up for more than a month eluding US law enforcement.
Russia’s action received immediate praise from the anti-secrecy website WikiLeaks, which has been counseling Snowden in his legal fight and information-divulging activities.
But it was quickly condemned both at the White House and by some in Congress – some of whom are calling for slapping Russia with a wide-ranging list of consequences.
White House spokesman Jay Carney told reporters that President Obama is “extremely disappointed that the Russian government would take this step.” The move “undermines a long record of law-enforcement cooperation” between the two countries, he said, before suggesting that the impact of Russia’s action is likely to permeate deeper in bilateral relations.
Asked if Mr. Obama still expects to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow in September as planned, Carney said, “We are evaluating the utility of a summit in light of this.”
Reaction in Congress was less diplomatic. Calling Snowden “a fugitive who belongs in a United States courtroom, not a free man deserving of asylum in Russia,” Sen. Robert Menendez (D) of New Jersey said in a statement that by harboring someone who “will potentially do great damage to US national security interests,” Russia had dealt “a setback to US-Russia relations.”
Sen. John McCain blasted Russia’s action as “a disgrace and a deliberate effort to embarrass the United States,” adding, “Now is the time to fundamentally rethink our relationship with Putin’s Russia.” The US should respond by expanding recent legislation targeting Russian human-rights violators, by moving forward with an expansion of NATO despite Russian concerns, and by completing the missile defense systems in Europe that Russia opposes, he said.
“Perhaps most importantly,” Senator McCain said, “we should speak out on behalf of the many people in Russia who increasingly are finding the courage to peacefully demand greater freedom, accountability, and rule of law in Russia.”
Russian officials sought to downplay the significance of the temporary asylum or its potential impact on relations with the US. A foreign policy adviser to Mr. Putin and former Russian ambassador to the US, Yuri Ushakov, told reporters he saw no reason the “relatively insignificant” Snowden case should upend US-Russia ties. He said Putin had “expressed hope many times that this will not affect the character of our relations.”
But that “hope” seems unlikely.
Obama was already under pressure to cancel the planned September meeting with Putin in Russia during a G20 summit, and that pressure will now almost certainly intensify. Some foreign policy analysts say it would be politically impossible for Obama – already accused by some conservative critics of “appeasing” Russia on everything from missile defense to Iran – to meet Putin in Moscow with Snowden freely residing there.
As one US-Russia analyst quipped at a recent Washington forum on US-Russia relations, “Can you imagine the headlines about Obama in Snowden’s new town? Not exactly good press from the White House perspective.”
But the jokes aside, others say the Snowden case is only the latest setback to bilateral relations that have suffered repeated blows especially since Putin returned to the Russian presidency last year.
The bigger question casting doubt on a Putin-Obama summit is “can such a meeting even be useful? And what could be the cost of a meeting that goes really poorly?” says Paul Saunders, executive director of the Center for the National Interest in Washington and a US-Russia specialist.
Others who have no illusions about the poor state of US-Russia relations insist it would be a mistake for Obama to simply allow them deteriorate further – or for the US to abandon the influential role it still plays with Russian civil society.
Matthew Rojansky, director of the Wilson Center’s Kennan Institute focusing on Russia and neighboring states, acknowledges a “mini-crisis of the US-Russia relationship,” but says it would be “a serious miscalculation if Obama did not participate in the September summit.”
A principle cause of the bilateral crisis is a widening “values gap” between the two countries, he says – as seen in recent Russian legislation clamping down on Russian civil society and targeting dissidents and human-rights advocates. But Mr. Rojansky says it is in the US interest “to deal with the values [issues] in a way that does not derail relations.”
The temptation to use the Snowden irritant as a reason to give up on problematic relations with Russia may sound enticing, others say, but they caution that the US should think twice before taking that bait.
“There’s a sense in Washington these days that US-Russia relations are not so important, or at least there are debates about if it is important and how much,” says Dimitri Simes, president of the Center for the National Interest and a Russia expert.
But he cites one example – how not taking Russia into account on Syria could negatively affect prospects for international diplomatic efforts to constrain Iran’s nuclear program. “If the US disregards Russia, it will almost certainly have consequences in areas that are very much of interest to us.”