Why Russia won't hand over Edward Snowden

Harold Maass

Vladimir Putin says yes, the NSA leaker is in a Moscow airport. And no, the U.S. can't have him

The mystery surrounding Edward Snowden's whereabouts has been cleared up. Russian President Vladimir Putin confirmed Tuesday that the former intelligence contractor wanted for leaking secrets on U.S. government data mining is holed up in an international transit area in a Moscow airport. Putin dismissed Washington's demand that Russia return Snowden to face espionage charges, saying Russia had no grounds to arrest him.

Refusing to send Snowden back to the U.S. could cost Putin diplomatically. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry lashed out at Moscow for giving Snowden a safe stopover en route — according to several reports — to Ecuador, where he has requested asylum. Putin, however, has several reasons to thumb his nose at the U.S.

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The reason Putin gave publicly was that Snowden had committed no crime since arriving in Russia on a flight from Hong Kong. "We can only send back some foreign nationals to the countries with which we have the relevant international agreements on extradition," Putin said. "With the United States we have no such agreement."

The Russian leader probably has other motives, too. But Andrew Ryvkin at Britain's Guardian says that the most obvious one — picking Snowden's brains for intelligence secrets — is not why Putin is holding out. After all, Ryvkin says, Moscow has its own "(albeit weaker) NSA with spies, satellites, cryptography specialists, and a general understanding of an intelligence agency's modus operandi that is far beyond that of any journalist or civilian in the U.S." What it does not have, he adds, is an abundance of opportunities to stick its finger in the American government's eye.

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At a time when its "superpower options" are exhausted, but its Cold War mentality is still prevalent, the only way for Russia to be safely recognized as a legitimate "foe" of the United States is by doing small things that irritate, but don't necessarily hurt the U.S.

Harboring someone the U.S. considers a fugitive is one of them. That way Russia can have an insignificant, yet highly publicized conflict without actually risking anything. [Guardian]

The Snowden case is just the latest — and, arguably, least consequential — of Putin's efforts to clash with President Obama. John Arquilla at Foreign Policy says the refusal to extradite Snowden only proves that former GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney when he asserted — to widespread derision — that Russia is America's number one foreign policy foe.

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Though the current furor over Moscow's willingness to shelter the fugitive Edward Snowden is eye-catching, the resurgent rivalry is more evident, and more important, in the case of Syria, where Russia can derail any effort to obtain the blessing of the United Nations for military intervention and at the same time shore up the Assad regime with a wide range of weaponry. [Foreign Policy]

Few commentators seem to think tweaking the U.S. on the Snowden affair will cost Putin much. "No one thinks the White House can or will do much apart from freezing extradition of prisoners to Russia, none of whom will be as valuable to them as Snowden is to the U.S. government," says Allahpundit at Hot Air. "As seems so often true, we have few good foreign-policy cards to play." Still, Allahpundit says, the Obama administration probably shouldn't be too upset about Putin's stubbornness.

How is it in Obama's interest at this point to have Snowden back? He's famously allergic to capturing and prosecuting prominent enemies of the state because of the legal and political headaches involved. That explains 80 percent of his drone policy towards jihadis. If Russia hands him over, then O has to deal with protests here from Snowden fans and chilly White House coverage from sections of the press that are sympathetic to him. Capturing him now probably won't stop the leaks, either. Glenn Greenwald was crowing again this morning that "the majority of revelations that are significant have yet to be made..." If the feds grab him, maybe that's the Guardian's cue to start publishing stuff. In which case, if you’re O, leaving Snowden alone in Ecuador might be the lesser of two bad outcomes. [Hot Air]

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