Snowden's Asylum: Implications For Washington-Moscow Relations


BMI View: US whistleblower Edward Snowden's temporary asylum in Russia will further strain US-Russia relations, but both sides will seek to avoid a decisive rupture .

Russia's decision to grant fugitive US National Security Agency (NSA) whistleblower Edward Snowden temporary asylum will further strain Washington-Moscow relations, which have already been weakened by the two countries supporting opposite sides in Syria's civil war. Some observers have likened the present relationship between the US and Russia to a ' new cold war ' . Although bilateral ties are certainly under considerable stress , we believe that both sides w ill seek to avoid a decisive break, as there are several major global security issues that necessitate their broad cooperation.

Why Did Russia Grant Snowden Asylum?

Snowden's arrival in Russia was not necessarily something that the Russian government welcomed. The Kremlin most probably wanted him to depart for a Latin American country promptly, to prevent Moscow from being placed in an awkward position in relation to Washington. However, once Snowden established himself at the international transit area of Moscow's Sheremetyevo airport, and it became obvious that Snowden's flight path to South America was being blocked by the US and its allies , Russia probably concluded that it had little choice but to offer Snowden temporary asylum.

For Russia , handing Snowden over to the Americans was always going to be extremely unlikely. For a start, President Vladimir Putin did not wish to be seen to be bowing to US demands. Secondly, the outrage expressed by European leaders (admittedly, almost certainly exaggerated for public effect) about the US's spying on them, and the revelations of the extent to which the US National Security Agency monitored its citizens' communications, made Snowden a hero to privacy advocates in the West and those suspicious of the United States worldwide. In light of this, Russian President Vladimir Putin, who is vigorously opposed by liberals at home, badly needed a boost to counter his increasingly authoritarian image. By granting Snowden temporary asylum, Russia, despite its own shortcomings in democracy and human rights , can portray itself as making a stand for liberalism against the US's global s urveillance programme. Snowden's presence in R ussia is thus a propaganda coup for the Kremlin.

Thirdly , Russia, which has come under tremendous criticism from the US and its allies over Putin's crackdown on dissidents, is almost certainly enjoying the discomfort caused in Washington by Snowden's revelations. Russia's harbouring of Snowden is another means by which Moscow is demonstrating its ability to stand up to the US. The Kremlin's main means in this regard is , of course , the conflict in Syria.

Fourthly , by granting Snowden temporary asylum, it is quite possible that Russia's own intelligence services will debrief the American behind closed doors to learn more about the US's spying programmes. Snowden is said to be carrying several laptop computers containing sensitive information. Any new revelations would n ot necessarily be made public, but could be useful to Russia itself.

Not Exactly A New Cold War

Despite deteriorating US-Russia relations, we do not consider current developments to constitute a 'new cold war'. During the Cold War, there was a genuine ideological division worldwide between the US-led capitalist world, and the USSR-led communist world. Nowadays, there are still ideological divisions between the US on the one hand, and Russia and China on the other. The US is democratic and favours the spread of neoliberal economic policies worldwide. By contrast, Russia is a heavily managed democracy with a strong state, while China is an authoritarian state with capitalistic characteristics and a generally pragmatic streak. These differences pale in comparison to the ideological dogmatism of the Cold War.

Instead, disagreements between the US, Russia, and China reflect something far more basic: power. This is not new. Ever since the US emerged as the world's sole superpower in the 1990s, Russia and China have been struggling to counterbalance the US, either individually or by cooperating loosely. In the 1990s, both were too weak to challenge America. Russia was mired in a post-Soviet depression, and China was keeping a low international profile while it concentrated on economic development. In 1999, the US ignored Russian and Chinese objections to NATO intervention in Serbia's breakaway province of Kosovo, and in 2003, Washington ignored Moscow's and Beijing's objections to its invasion of Iraq.

Now, however, Russia and China feel strong enough to stand up to the US. Both are still rather weak, geopolitically speaking. For example, Russia and China have very few genuine allies, and those that are their allies are economically peripheral countries, such as Belarus, Armenia, and Tajikistan for Russia, and North Korea and Myanmar for China. Nonetheless, Moscow and Beijing still have the means to push back against the US.

Global Security Issues Require US-Russia Cooperation

Although the US has stated that its relations with Russia will not be 'business as usual' in light of the Snowden affair, Washington has only a limited means of punishing Moscow. In the near term, US President Barack Obama could cancel a summit with President Putin that is scheduled to be held in early September, just before Russia hosts the G-20 meeting in St Petersburg (Obama could also skip the G-20 meeting entirely). A more dramatic gesture would be an American boycott of the 2014 Winter Olympics in the Russian city of Sochi, as advocated by some hardline US legislators, but this would appear to be highly unlikely. Rather, the US could postpone its response to some future event, when Russia needs a favour from Washington.

Regardless of the US's displeasure with Russia over Snowden, the two countries will still need to maintain at least a loose degree of cooperation to tackle the following global security issues:

Syria's civil war: Russia has been steadfast in its support of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in the two-year long civil war. Meanwhile, the US and its allies are stepping up support for the Syrian rebels. With Syria having become a proxy war between Eastern and Western powers, any negotiated end to the conflict would probably require cooperation between Washington and Moscow (and probably Tehran too).

Iran's nuclear programme: The US needs Russia's support to isolate Iran as a means of pressuring the latter to abandon its nuclear programme. President Putin is reportedly visiting Tehran in mid-August to meet new Iranian President Hassan Rouhani to break the nuclear deadlock. However, there are also reports that Russia may sell Iran new air defence missiles. If this is true, then Washington is bound to object.

Afghanistan and the 'war on terror': The US and its NATO allies are scheduled to withdraw the bulk of their troops from Afghanistan in 2014. Although Washington and Moscow view Central Asia as a battleground for geopolitical rivalry, both sides have an interest in preventing the spread of Islamist militancy in the region. In addition, given that the Boston bombers originated from Russia's North Caucasus, Washington will need Moscow's cooperation to help anticipate future such threats.

Global nuclear reductions: The US and Russia between them have around 95% of the world's nuclear weapons, meaning that they hold the key to any significant worldwide denuclearisation. Both sides are committed to further nuclear reductions, but a new treaty would require good bilateral relations.

Snowden Asylum Problematic, But Not A Dead End

Overall, while Edward Snowden's stay in Russia is certainly problematic for bilateral relations, it need not lead to a break in ties. In the near term, there may well be a cooler period, similar to that which followed Russia's invasion of Georgia in 2008. However, the global security issues that affect both the US and Russia are extremely pressing, meaning that it is in neither side's interest to see a decisive break.

This article is tagged to:
Sector: Country Risk
Geography: Russia, United States