Edward Snowden in Moscow: A Case Study in Diplomatic Mismanagement

Since former NSA contractor Edward Snowden arrived in Moscow in late June, he appears to have wreaked havoc on U.S.-Russia relations.  The White House cancelled the planned Moscow summit between Presidents Obama and Putin primarily due to lack of progress on key issues, but many nevertheless think Snowden was the main reason that Washington pulled the plug.

This sorry affair has come to pose an outsized problem for an already troubled bilateral relationship.  While Moscow’s handling showed no particular skill, Washington seems to have forgotten how the game is played in such cases.  The administration unwisely fueled an expectation that the Russians might send Snowden back—which Moscow was never going to do. 

Snowden landed at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport on June 23 and took up residence in the transit area.  Initially, President Putin sounded like he wanted Snowden to leave.  He told the press that “the faster he [Snowden] chooses his final destination point, the better it will be for us and for him.”

But if Putin didn’t want Snowden in Moscow, why did he let him stay?  Russian officials asserted that he was stuck because the U.S. government cancelled his passport, so he had no valid travel document.  One has to believe, however, that, if Putin really wanted Snowden on his way, Russian officials are clever enough to figure out a way to provide him a travel document.

Or those officials could have applied the creativity they have shown at other times.  Last October, Russian opposition activist Leonid Razyozzhayev sought political asylum in Ukraine.  Masked men seized him in Kyiv and whisked him back to Russia.  They apparently skirted any pesky travel document formalities, as the Ukrainian border service reported no record of Razyozzhayev having left Ukraine.  Alternatively, the Russians could have let Snowden take a sea voyage on the guided-missile cruiser Moskva, which docked in Havana harbor on August 3.

Instead, the Kremlin granted temporary asylum.  The best solution for U.S.-Russia relations—a quiet departure from Moscow to a third country—looks less and less likely.

For its part, Washington forgot the rules of the game for such cases.  However Snowden may be regarded in the West, the Kremlin groups him with defectors.  The Russians do not return defectors.  If they sent Snowden back to U.S. custody, the message to a potential defector would be clear:  Moscow sent Snowden back; they could send me back.  Putin spent years as a KGB officer and understands all too well that that message would discourage anyone with intelligence value who might in the future think about defecting to Russia.

Yet the day after Snowden’s arrival in Moscow, Secretary of State Kerry asked publicly for the Russians to return him to the United States.  Administration spokesmen subsequently told the press how senior U.S. officials were actively reaching out to their Russian counterparts to seek Snowden’s return and to assure Moscow that he would not be subject to the death penalty or torture.

It is dubious diplomatic practice to ask the other side to do something when the answer definitely will be “no” and when, if the situation were reversed, your answer definitely would be “no.”  The U.S. government would never seriously consider returning Alexander Poteyev, a former Russian intelligence officer whose revelations to U.S. authorities included Anna Chapman and nine other sleeper agents arrested by the FBI and deported in 2010, or any other Russian defector.

The case could have been handled differently.  Indeed, Washington and Moscow have decades of experience in quietly compartmentalizing defector and spy cases so that they do not damage the broader relationship.  The arrest and deportation of the ten sleeper agents three years ago was managed in such a way that it did not cause even a small ripple in the relationship.

Another example:  In 1986, Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev had begun to develop the warm rapport that led to the treaty banning intermediate-range missiles and release of some refuseniks.  Yet the U.S. government in September and October of that year expelled no fewer than 80 Soviet diplomats.  The Soviets retaliated by expelling ten Americans and withdrawing all Soviet staff from the U.S. Embassy in Moscow, but this episode otherwise had little impact on the positive trend in U.S.-Soviet relations.

President Obama appears to have understood the proper handling of these situations in June, when he told a press conference “I’m not going to have one case with a suspect who we’re trying to extradite suddenly be elevated to the point where I’ve got to start doing wheeling and dealing and trading on a whole host of other issues, simply to get a guy extradited so he can face the justice system.”  That was the right way to play it.  But other administration officials did not.  The White House press spokesman on August 1 responded to Moscow’s decision to grant Snowden temporary asylum by suggesting the president might cancel his summit with Putin.

It thus should not surprise anyone when major media outlets attribute the summit cancellation more to Snowden than a stalemated summit agenda.  And it should not surprise anyone that, when the administration pressed a public demand for Snowden’s return, Senators McCain, Graham and Schumer took the opportunity for some political grandstanding and sought to make Snowden the yardstick for judging relations with Moscow.

U.S.-Russia relations hopefully at some point will take a turn for the better.  It would be useful to begin managing the Snowden case now so that, if that possibility of better relations emerges, he poses a small hiccup in the relationship rather than a roadblock that stymies progress.