1 August 2013
Andrew Wood

Sir Andrew Wood

Associate Fellow, Russia and Eurasia Programme


You couldn't make it up: Edward Snowden granted temporary asylum in Russia – a country with an unrivalled history of listening in to other people's phone calls, bedroom consultations or private discussions – as a 'whistleblower' on the American National Security Agency's legally sanctioned and publicly acknowledged activities. What is in it for Moscow?

A bit of fun of course, for one thing. The Soviet and now Russian habit has always been to answer criticisms of their conduct with the playground insult 'and you're another.' Snowden in transit through Moscow was a chance to posture as a defender of human rights in answer to Western – for them most woundingly US – comments on the recent Russian record.

There have also been Russians, concerned to work for human rights in their own country, more ready than ever to believe that the West has let them down in contesting renewed Kremlin pressure on civil society, and who have been willing to use Snowden as a symbol of their commitment to universal values.

But President Putin has no sympathy for turncoats; and has no need for extra ways to signal his distaste for the United States. If he or the Russian FSB (the Federal Security Service in Russia) had supposed that Snowden had valuable intelligence to offer they would have taken him in sooner, and they must have checked that out right away.

As a contract worker reportedly determined at the outset to break his contract, Snowden would not seem to be much of an intelligence catch. He would certainly not seem to Putin to be a hero. And the Russian president tried to mitigate the possible provision of asylum for Snowden by the condition that he would not be permitted to harm Russia's US 'partners' while under Moscow's protection.

So if Snowden would not seem to Moscow to be a likely long- or even short-term intelligence asset, or even what Lenin would have described as a 'useful idiot,' why have the Russians given him temporary asylum? It seems probable to me that he has become an embarrassment, and because they couldn't quite think of anything else to do with him.

Snowden has been allowed to stay at Sheremetyevo Airport in Moscow – or at least so it is said – for too long simply to be handed over to US officials. If he was to have been sent to face trial in the USA Snowden would naturally be questioned there as to whom he had seen in Moscow, which might or might not be embarrassing to the Russians.

Besides, there is no extradition treaty between Moscow and Washington – and Moscow would have had to explain why they had agreed that Snowden should be sent to the US after all this time.

Muddle is often a better explanation for the actions of any government than finely balanced policy making, and Russia is certainly no exception to that rule. Moscow's handling of the Snowden case has been hesitant, with no clear persons or institution directing affairs. Giving him temporary asylum is not a solution. It merely puts the case into a different context, while making it harder for Moscow to return him to face trial in the US, to send him off to another country, or to grant him permanent asylum in Russia for that matter.

The Russians may hope that the American administration will tire of pressing its case, and that Snowden can be conveniently forgotten.

He will not of course be allowed – if he is given permanent leave to stay in Russia, studies his Chekhov and Dostoevsky, and accepts one of the offers of marriage that he has had – to take an active role as a human rights activist in his adopted country.

But the Kremlin will have absorbed the lesson that the present US administration has been prepared over the years to turn a blind eye to Russian misbehaviour for the sake of what it sees as realism in pursuing its immediate foreign policy interests. So why, Russian policy makers may think, make too much fuss over Snowden?

There has been speculation of arranging a swap of Snowden for a Russian refugee in the United States. I would prefer to think that too dishonourable for the United States to contemplate.

This article was originally published on CNN.com.