Russia’s confirmation Tuesday that fugitive contractor Edward Snowden is using the Moscow airport as a pit stop on his global search for a haven leaves American authorities seemingly powerless to stop him from traveling onward with top-secret files that detail extensive U.S. surveillance programs.
Experts on U.S.-Russian relations said that Snowden’s arrival in Moscow was a serious setback for the Obama administration’s manhunt and a surprise gift for Russian President Vladimir Putin, who’s shown a penchant for blocking U.S. interests on strategic issues.
Analysts added that they presume, despite Putin’s denials, that Russia has copied Snowden’s files, giving Putin not only invaluable insight into U.S. spy networks, but also a ready retort for the next time the U.S. accuses Russia of Internet restriction, cyber espionage or a checkered human rights record.
“It’s hard for me to see that the U.S. has any leverage whatsoever here,” said Keir Giles, a Russia specialist and director of the Conflict Studies Research Centre, a British security and defense think tank. “It plays into everything the Russians want to do, to embarrass, undermine and counteract American influence around the world. It’s an absolute golden goose that’s fallen into their laps.”
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Putin, speaking to reporters Tuesday during a trip to Finland, said that his government was surprised by Snowden’s arrival and stressed that Russian security agencies “have never worked with and are not working with” Snowden, a former contractor for the National Security Agency who turned 30 on Friday.
Analysts were deeply skeptical of those claims, saying that at a minimum Chinese authorities had given their Russian counterparts a heads-up when Snowden left Hong Kong. They were equally adamant that there was no way Putin, a former intelligence agent, or his administration, which is stacked with former intelligence types, would pass up the chance to pore through top-secret U.S. documents.
“This guy is a hero to Mr. Putin. He has exposed our most advanced system of foreign and domestic surveillance,” said Andrew Kuchins, director of the Russia and Eurasia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington research institute. “To an intelligence officer like Putin, for something like this to come his way, it’s, ‘Wow, this is a good day.’”
Putin made it clear that Russia wasn’t moving toward expelling Snowden, who as a transit passenger “is entitled to buy a ticket and fly to wherever he wants.” He noted that there’s no extradition treaty between the United States and Russia, making it impossible to return someone in Snowden’s situation.
Ecuador tops the list of Snowden’s most likely next stops – the most speculated-upon escape route would be from Russia to Cuba, where he could then transfer to a plane bound for the Ecuadorean capital of Quito. While there were no official announcements from any party about Snowden’s potential travel plans, it seemed that the Russians preferred that he leave soon rather than to linger and aggravate the U.S.-Russian strain over his presence.
“Snowden is a free person,” Putin said. “The sooner he chooses his final destination, the better it is for him and Russia.”
Secretary of State John Kerry issued a call for calm, saying he didn’t want to raise tensions over the issue. U.S. officials continued to work through diplomatic and law enforcement channels, arguing that even without an extradition treaty Moscow could deport Snowden based on his revoked U.S. passport and the serious felony charges that await him in the U.S.
The State Department reminded Moscow that the U.S. had returned “many hundreds” of suspected criminals to Russia, and that the two governments had worked closely in the Boston Marathon bombing investigation. However, for a second day officials declined to discuss possible consequences should the Russians refuse assistance.
“We’ve asked the Russian government to consider all potential options to expel him, to return him to the United States, and we’re going to continue those discussions,” State Department spokesman Patrick Ventrell told reporters.
Even before Snowden turned up at Sheremetyevo International Airport, bilateral relations had soured so badly that few in Washington policy circles were still talking about a “reset,” the Obama administration’s term for what officials had hoped would be a warming of ties. There was never much reciprocity from the Kremlin.
“Obama has been chasing Putin, as we all have,” said Giles, the Russia specialist in Britain. “We keep on calling and sending flowers even though they’re happy just to string us along.”
The past year and a half brought dispute after dispute between the U.S. and Russia, chief among them a deadlock over the vicious civil war in Syria. Russia wholeheartedly supports the regime of President Bashar Assad and feels “vindicated,” as one analyst put it, now that regime forces are routing rebels in key areas. The United States, on the other hand, has been adrift on Syria, with no clear policy and no real partners among the factionalized Syrian opposition that includes major segments with ties to al Qaida.
American diplomats have tried in vain to move the Russian position; Moscow has vetoed three Western-backed resolutions to pressure the Syrian regime and insists it will continue to supply the regime with weapons such as the S300 air-defense system.
Other strains include: Russia freezing U.S. adoptions of Russian children after fatal abuse cases; Congress approving a law barring several Russian officials from entering the U.S.; and Russia revealing the purported CIA station chief after broadcasting on TV the arrest of an American agent who was caught trying to recruit a Russian spy.
“Look, we’ve got to start dealing with Vladimir Putin in a realistic fashion for what he is,” Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., a staunch supporter of the Syrian uprising, told CNN Tuesday. “He’s an old KGB colonel apparatchik that dreams of the days of the Russian Empire, and he continues to stick his thumb in our eye in a broad variety of ways.”
If, as suspected, the Russians already have extracted intelligence from Snowden, then there’s little incentive for Putin to cooperate, analysts said. The Russians could demand the return of Viktor Bout, the notorious Russian arms smuggler being held in Illinois, but analysts said they doubted Moscow needed anything more to do with the Snowden case.
“It plays so well into Putin’s narrative: We’re going to whatever we can to impede U.S. unilateral exercising of power in the world, including in the intelligence and cyber world,” said Kuchins, the Washington analyst. “They can now say, ‘We got what we want from this guy, so goodbye.’”