Russia has given NSA secrets leaker Edward Snowden asylum for one year. Now what?
The White House has a broad array of potential diplomatic tools to craft a response — but it’s not clear which ones would send a clear message of disapproval to Russian President Vladimir Putin while not endangering areas of rare but crucial Russo-U.S. cooperation.
Even before Snowden arrived on the international scene, relations between Washington and Moscow would have needed a couple of upgrades to be merely suboptimal.
With the White House announcement on Thursday that President Barack Obama might scrap a summit next month with Putin over the asylum decision, how likely is a further escalation of tensions?
Simply put, are we heading into a new Cold War?
“No, we’re not going into another Cold War,” a senior administration official told Yahoo News, requesting anonymity to describe the thinking in Washington about the way forward.
If things escalate, the official made clear, it’s not because of Snowden — at least, "not just because" of him.
Sure, at this point, given the sweeping impact of the former NSA contractor's revelations about U.S. foreign policy and domestic spying programs, it might be tempting to divide at least the president’s second term into “BSE” and “SE” — Before Snowden Era and Snowden Era.
And there’s no mistaking how unhappy the White House is with Moscow’s decision to grant Snowden asylum.
“We will be in contact with Russian authorities, expressing our extreme disappointment in this decision,” press secretary Jay Carney declared Thursday, adding: “He’s not a dissident. He’s not a whistle-blower.”
“We are evaluating the utility of a summit in light of this and other issues,” Carney added.
“Other issues” is important here. You could almost call them preexisting conditions.
The list of Russo-U.S. disputes is long. At the top is probably Putin’s support for Bashar Assad’s regime in Syria, where a civil war has left at least 100,000 dead, according to U.N. estimates. Russia, which has a long relationship with Assad’s regime, joined China in blocking U.S. efforts to get a U.N. Security Council resolution that might have opened the way for international sanctions against Syria.
But there are other issues. American officials say Putin is behind a series of high-profile trials of critics and potential rivals, part of a crackdown on dissent and opposition as he consolidates power. Some U.S. lawmakers suspect Russia is cheating on arms control agreements.
Russia opposes U.S. missile defense plans in Europe and sharply objects to the eastward expansion of NATO, an alliance conceived to deter the Soviet Union but which has acted as something of an umbrella for former Soviet republics looking for shelter from Moscow’s frequently heavy-handed influence.
At the same time, the Obama administration’s first-term “reset” of relations with Russia has borne fruit, with the nuclear arms control START treaty ratification and the opening of the “air bridge” through Russia’s backyard to supply U.S.-led forces in Afghanistan.
“But we are in a dynamic, now, with Russia, where on the balance sheet of issues on which we have progress or cooperation against the issues on which we have conflict or profound disagreements we are tilting pretty heavily to the latter,” the senior administration official said.
“There’s never been a time in post-Soviet Russia-U.S. relations when everything was perfect,” the official continued. But “these are real disagreements with a real impact.”
So now the challenge is to find a way to send a message to Putin on those disagreements but not poison cooperation on other issues.
“I know chests across Capitol Hill are being beaten as we speak, but let’s be honest, we wouldn’t return the Russian equivalent of Edward Snowden,” former Obama national security spokesman Tommy Vietor told Yahoo News.
One American career diplomat suggested one option could be to have the U.S. ambassador to Russia, the outspoken Michael McFaul, either visit or play host to Putin critics. That carries the potential downside of marking those people targets for retaliation.
What about boycotting the 2014 Olympics in Sochi, Russia?
“The idea of declining to participate punishes our athletes above anyone else,” said Vietor, expressing views often heard inside the White House.
The U.S. could also accelerate the pace of missile defense deployments in Europe. But that would require local allies to agree, and it’s not clear how Russia would react.
Republican Sens. John McCain and Lindsey Graham have suggested giving the former Soviet Republic of Georgia membership in NATO — a proposal greeted with disbelief at the White House.
The problem with that idea is Article 5 of NATO's founding treaty, which considers an attack on one member of the alliance an attack on all and pledges a military response. Russia and Georgia have engaged in armed conflict in recent years, and it’s not likely that the American public has much of an appetite to send troops to fight and die for either country.
Does the U.S. want to engage in an ambiguous battle over "some rocky real estate in South Ossetia?” Vietor said, referring to a disputed region Georgia considers part of its territory but does not control.
Vietor said the U.S. should avoid an “escalatory” response, while still sending a message to Putin.
“You could dial up the statements of criticism of Russian behavior, which they dislike enormously, or Mike (McFaul) could take certain meetings with opposition leaders, or people in the legal field or others that highlight the dark underbelly of the Russian government,” he said.
But “having the president of the United States dive into the fray here and make some big public statement or symbolic gesture probably isn’t the way to lower the temperature,” Vietor added.
Canceling the summit remains the only consideration — at least publicly. Given that “other issues” had already cast doubt on the merits of the meeting, there’s a solid chance that Obama will not go to Moscow.
We’ll know more about prospects for the Obama-Putin summit next week: Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Secretary of State John Kerry were scheduled to meet in Washington next week with their Russian counterparts. The foursome was ostensibly due to work on setting up the presidential talks.