The Soviet-Era Strategy That Explains What Russia Is Doing With Snowden

Whataboutistm: a rhetorical defense that alleges hypocrisy from the accuser. And it's going to make it a lot harder to criticize Moscow on human rights.

A cartoon from a 1967 issue of Pravda depicts racial tensions in U.S. cities. Under the Statue of Liberty, armed troops are marching with labels reading, "Newark, Detroit and Milwaukee," the sites of riots. A caption underneath read, "Shame of America" (AP)

When William Averell Harriman, who served as Secretary of Commerce under President Truman, mentioned "Soviet imperialism" in a speech in Seattle, writer Ilya Ehrenburg wasted no time airing his disgust on the pages of the Soviet publication Pravda.

American warmongers want to drop bombs on the Soviet Union because they don't like its social order, Ehrenburg wrote, but the Soviet people, though they consider U.S. laws on race to be insulting to human dignity, "do not intend on that account to turn modern weapons against Mississippi or Georgia," the Christian Science Monitor described in a 1947 story.

The exchange is indicative of a rhetorical strategy known as whataboutism, which occurs when officials implicated in wrongdoing whip out a counter-example of a similar abuse from the accusing country, with the goal of undermining the legitimacy of the criticism itself. (In Latin, this rhetorical defense is called tu quoque, or "you, too.")

More than a month after NSA leaker Edward Snowden landed in Moscow's Sheremetyevo airport, Russia has finally granted him yearlong asylum, and it seems these kinds of cold-war-era swipes are back -- but in a subtler way.

There are a few likely reasons Putin chose to shelter Snowden in the end, even after going out of his way to seem reluctant. First, the Snowden saga offers an irresistible chance to poke Obama in the eye and make it seem as though Russia would never yield to U.S. pleas or threats. ("It's an easy way to look like a world leader and to prove that the U.S. doesn't always get its way," Cory Welt, a professor of Eurasian studies at George Washington University, told me.) Second, it means Russian authorities can probe Snowden for even further disclosures about the National Security Agency -- something many suspect they began doing as soon as Snowden landed at Sheremetyevo. And last but not least, it allows the Kremlin a moment of whataboutism, a favorite, Soviet-era appeal to hypocrisy: Russia is not that bad, you see, because other countries have also committed various misdeeds, and what about those?

To be clear: It's not that the other party in this situation is beyond reproach -- Russia obviously was right to denounce American racism -- just that the attempt to deflect blame consists of blaming the opponent for something unrelated.

As the Monitor article notes, the tactic got its start in Soviet times, when Western cracks about the USSR would be met with retorts from Moscow along the lines of, "What about America, where they lynch black people?!"

The strategy had countless uses, like in foreign affairs:

"You'd challenge a Kremlin official with the abuses carried out by the Red Army in Afghanistan, for example, and he'd pause for a moment, shuffle uncomfortably, and then say... 'what about what the Americans are doing in Nicaragua?'" Russia-watcher Mark Chapman once wrote.

Like many other Soviet traditions, whataboutism has resurfaced in the Putin era.

When Guardian correspondent Miriam Elder wrote a column about the Kafkaesque Russian dry-cleaning process, a Putin spokesman responded:

"I am sorry to hear about Miriam Elder's experience at the dry cleaners, in which she lost her receipt and so had an hour of her time 'stolen' in providing the necessary personal details to retrieve her woollies," Peskov wrote in a letter to this newspaper. 

"But I am also amazed that this anecdote can be passed off as any sort of insight into the state of Russia today." ... "Let me remind British readers of the thousands of hours that are 'stolen' from Russian citizens when they complete the UK's visa application forms, which are a whopping 10 pages. The time, money, effort and inconvenience that Russians face in obtaining UK visas put Ms. Elder's ordeal into perspective."

In 2008, the Economist's Edward Lucas captured the practice perfectly when he described his appearance on a Russian TV show:

How could the West criticize Russia for saber-rattling, asked the eloquent Aleksei Pushkov, when America and its allies had not just rattled sabers, but actually used them in Iraq. And so on and so forth.

More recently, when other Western nations condemned Putin's crackdown on protesters, Kremlin officials were ready with: "What about the United Kingdom? Breaking the law during public gatherings there could lead to fine of 5,800 pounds sterling or even prison."

Russia's ban on U.S. adoptions could even be considered a form of whataboutism, enacted in retaliation after the U.S. sought to punish Russian officials it felt were responsible for the death of the whistleblowing lawyer Sergei Magnitsky in police custody. Russia may not take good care of its activists, the law's tone seemed to say, but at least it's not like the U.S., where adopted Russian orphans have died in hot cars.

It's worth noting that Russia is far from the only country to make use of this strategy, and the argument cuts both ways.

"The State Department issues (well-deserved, yes!) criticism and expresses concern about human rights violations in Russia, while its own human rights record (Guantanamo, and yes, surveillance) is not impeccable," Masha Lipman, the chair of the Carnegie Moscow Center's Society and Regions Program, told me via email.

Indeed, American officials have also relied on the tactic to defend controversial practices that they can't quite disavow. Like, say, NSA surveillance.

Shortly after Snowden fled from Hong Kong to Moscow, John Kerry said: "I wonder if Mr. Snowden chose China and Russia as assistants in his flight from justice because they're such powerful bastions of Internet freedom."

Russian writer Vadim Nikitin even found an example of the rhetorical device in the Twitter feed of the author of the 2008 Economist whataboutism article:

But one of the most satisfying things to come out of all this is a recent tweet from the Economist's former Russia man and current international editor Edward Lucas: "How does #Russia treat its "whistleblowers"? With Polonium 210... #Litvinenko ."

The irony is that Lucas's tweet is a textbook example of "whataboutism," the very thing his august newspaper condemns as an old Soviet rhetorical ploy .

In Snowden, Russia has found the ultimate whataboutism mascot. By granting him asylum, Russia casts itself, even if momentarily, as a defender of human rights, and the U.S. as the oppressor.

The best response to whataboutism has historically been to say that while, yes, other countries have their faults, injustice should not be tolerated anywhere. In 1946, an American journalist named John Strohm was confronted with Russian civilians' questions about the U.S. civil rights record while on a visit to Minsk.

"Admitting we had lynchings and gangsters, I said we weren't proud of them, nor did I think any country could be proud of gangsterism and the use of force instead of law," he wrote.

But that counter-argument fails when the infringement in question is a U.S. government program that the U.S. government itself is not entirely able to explain.

Now, if the U.S. ever condemns Russia's privacy invasions or arrests of dissidents, Moscow can comfortably say, "What about Snowden?"