Why Putin Is Loving the Snowden Affair

The Russian leader enjoys humiliating Washington, so the Obama administration shouldn't expect much help from him in nabbing the NSA leaker.


During his 13 years in power, Vladimir Putin has demonstrated a fondness for detaining all kinds of dissidents: rich ones, like the imprisoned tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky; pop culture ones, like the band Pussy Riot. So Putin must be at least somewhat sympathetic to Washington's desire to arrest America's most prominent dissident, Edward Snowden. In remarks on Tuesday, Putin indicated that he didn't want the National Security Agency leaker to remain in a transit zone at a Russian airport, saying "the sooner he chooses his final destination, the better it is for him and Russia."

At the same time, however, Putin said he wasn't going to extradite Snowden. And somewhere behind that cold, Slavic poker face must lurk a serious temptation to keep Snowden around for awhile. Because as much as Putin likes to crack down on dissidents, he also appears to enjoy "continuing to stick his thumb in [America's] eye," as Arizona Sen. John McCain told CNN Tuesday, calling the Russian president a "old KGB colonel apparatchik that dreams of the days of the Russian empire." Beyond that, the potential espionage gold mine Snowden represents has to make the mouth of that old KGB colonel water. (With what he could possibly reveal about the NSA's global surveillance system, Snowden makes Aldrich Ames look like a piker.)

Whatever Putin may be saying now about not wanting to harm ''the business-like character of our relations with the U.S.," it is evident that Russia's foreign policy is largely shaped by its leader's desire to meddle with America and its designs around the world. That is true whether the issue is Syria (with Putin backing Bashar al-Assad against the U.S.-aided rebels); Iran (where Moscow opposes too-stringent sanctions and is building a reactor); or missile defense (where Putin pressured President Obama to retreat from a missile-defense system, angering the Poles and the Czech Republic). Above all, Putin was incensed by the Magnitsky Act, a 2012 law named after a murdered Russian lawyer under which the U.S. government can penalize Russian human-rights abuses. And he has built his entire rise to power on the idea of resurrecting the prestige and geopolitical impact of his former employer--the USSR -- if not exactly its communist system.

Some Russia experts say the truth is even simpler than that: Putin is essentially still the street tough he was when he was raised in the poor section of St. Petersburg. From the time he was known as the no-nonsense deputy mayor of that city, his worldview has been mostly shaped by that upbringing and his career in the KGB, when his job was to find ways to oppose U.S. power and influence.

Through its own policies, Washington has often encouraged this rather retrograde viewpoint and policy as well as Russian mistrust, some scholars have argued. In the decade after the Soviet Union's collapse in late 1991, the United States offered up a lot of poor economic advice -- high-minded tinkering by the free-market consultants at the Harvard Institute for International Development, as well as the IMF. Citing their Western-trained advisors, both former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and his successor, Russian President Boris Yeltsin, confidently predicted a two-year transition to a market economy. It all went horribly sour: Privatization of the former communist production system quickly degenerated into what the Russians called "grabitization," the unfair seizure of old state assets by party apparatchiks-turned-oligarchs with insider connections. Coming at a time when the U.S. was also seeking to peel off parts of the old Soviet Bloc by expanding NATO eastward, the economic results were so devastating that conspiracy theories sprang up about how the bad advice was just another American plot.

That era of mistrust of America led directly to era of Putin. Since then, despite various attempts at what former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton called a "reset" of relations, the U.S. has tended to encourage Russian suspicions by generally treating "Russia as heir to the USSR's policies and objectives," Leslie Gelb and Dimitri Simes write in a new article in The National Interest. "Thus did NATO expand to incorporate not only the former Warsaw Pact [nations aligned with the USSR] but also the three Baltic states. And it has declared its intent to admit Ukraine and Georgia. More broadly, in almost every dispute between Russia and other former Soviet states, even with the authoritarian and repressive Belarus, the United States and the European Union have sided with Moscow's opponents. This creates an impression that the West's top priorities, long after the Cold War, include not merely containing Russia but also transforming it."

Now Putin, who just recently at the G-8 summit in Northern Ireland rebuked Obama to his face over Syria, may have at his fingertips an instrument of ultimate payback: an American leaker who professes to want to expose the United States' "architecture of oppression," which is the sort of thing Putin himself is often accused of.

In the end Putin may well be a responsible enough world leader to realize that the potential intelligence trove and one-upmanship of America he'd reap by keeping Snowden isn't enough to offset the damage he could do to U.S.-Russia relations. Like the Chinese, he may want Snowden to simply disappear (though, we must hope, not to a dungeon somewhere in the vast apparatus controlled by Russian intelligence). Using a homey metaphor at a news conference in Finland on Tuesday, Putin indicated Snowden simply wasn't worth the trouble: "It's like shearing a piglet: a lot of squealing and little wool,'' he said.

Russia may not be the best stop either for Snowden, who declared in Hong Kong that he didn't "want to live in a world where everything I do and say is recorded. That is not something I am willing to support or live under." (Note to Mr. Snowden: if you stay in Russia, you will be living in that world in spades, and you will almost certainly solidify your reputation among many Americans as a traitor.)

So Snowden may not stay in Russia all that long--just long enough for Vladimir Putin to enjoy it.