How Putin Played Obama to Force Moscow No-Show
Published: August 9, 2013 (Issue # 1772)
Russia's abrupt decision last week to give temporary asylum to U.S. intelligence leaker Edward Snowden caught many by surprise. After all, the Federal Migration Service had three months to decide after Snowden officially applied for asylum on July 16. Why the rush?
Had Russia waited the full three months, the gesture would have sent a modest but friendly nod to U.S. President Barack Obama. Snowden would have still been in the no-man's-land of the transit zone at Sheremetyevo Airport — technically, not Russian territory. Sure, this would have largely been a self-delusional game in semantics, but it would have saved Obama some political embarrassment and would have avoided a full-blown conflict with U.S. Republicans over his "soft policy" toward Russia.
Another more modest but still U.S.-friendly option for the Kremlin would have been to give Snowden documents to leave the airport but without a final decision on his asylum status. This would have at least kept Russia in neutral territory on the Snowden issue and left everyone guessing over whether Moscow would grant Snowden asylum.
But by giving Snowden temporary asylum only 2 ½ weeks after he applied, Russia seems to have gone out of its way to snub the U.S. As it turns out, Putin's now-famous statement that Snowden could stay in Russia only if he stopped damaging U.S. interests didn't count for much in the end. Giving Snowden asylum status was, indeed, a significant blow to the U.S. At the very least, it damaged Obama's reputation, as well as U.S.-Russian relations in the short-term.
U.S. Republicans have called Russia's decision a "hostile act." Leading the pack was Senator John McCain, who said giving Snowden asylum was: "a deliberate effort to embarrass the United States. It is a slap in the face of all Americans. Now is the time to fundamentally rethink our relationship with Putin's Russia."
Even otherwise soft-spoken Democrat Senator Charles Schumer said, "Russia has stabbed us in the back, and each day that Mr. Snowden is allowed to roam free is another twist of the knife."
One explanation for Russia's hasty decision is to have made it that much easier for Obama to cancel the Moscow summit with Putin, which is exactly what Obama did on Wednesday. The White House decided that there would be little to talk about anyway during the summit — except for the old, worn-out topics of Syria, arms reductions and Iran, which the two sides do not see eye-to-eye on.
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