Skip to main content

Snowden is an unwanted guest in Putin's Russia

By Daniel Treisman, Special to CNN
updated 7:56 AM EDT, Fri August 2, 2013
National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden poses with German Green party parliamentarian Hans-Christian Stroebele in Moscow on October 31. Stroebele returned from the meeting with a letter from Snowden to German authorities, which was distributed to the media. In it, Snowden said he is confident that with international support, the United States would abandon its efforts to "treat dissent as defection" and "criminalize political speech with felony charges." National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden poses with German Green party parliamentarian Hans-Christian Stroebele in Moscow on October 31. Stroebele returned from the meeting with a letter from Snowden to German authorities, which was distributed to the media. In it, Snowden said he is confident that with international support, the United States would abandon its efforts to "treat dissent as defection" and "criminalize political speech with felony charges."
HIDE CAPTION
NSA leaker Edward Snowden
NSA leaker Edward Snowden
NSA leaker Edward Snowden
NSA leaker Edward Snowden
NSA leaker Edward Snowden
NSA leaker Edward Snowden
NSA leaker Edward Snowden
NSA leaker Edward Snowden
NSA leaker Edward Snowden
NSA leaker Edward Snowden
NSA leaker Edward Snowden
NSA leaker Edward Snowden
NSA leaker Edward Snowden
NSA leaker Edward Snowden
NSA leaker Edward Snowden
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
13
14
15
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Daniel Treisman says Putin often takes anti-American stances to shore up his support
  • He writes that the Snowden affair has put Putin in a difficult bind
  • He says Putin can't be seen to be subservient to U.S. but doesn't want a fight
  • Treisman: U.S. needs Russian support on some key international issues

Editor's note: Daniel Treisman is a professor of political science at the University of California, Los Angeles, and author of "The Return: Russia's Journey from Gorbachev to Medvedev."

(CNN) -- In Russian, there is an old saying: "An uninvited guest is worse than a Tatar," referring to the country's medieval invaders from the East.

Although Edward Snowden's lawyer calls him "the most wanted man on the planet," it's clear that Russia's president, Vladimir Putin, would rather he were just about anywhere else.

After five weeks in Sheremetyevo Airport's transit zone, the NSA leaker was allowed to leave on Thursday under a grant of temporary asylum valid for one year. A taxi spirited him to an undisclosed Moscow location, where Putin's Federal Security Service will undoubtedly be watching him closely.

To some in the U.S., Snowden's Sheremetyevo escapade seems to have Putin written all over it. The Russian president, who once compared the U.S.'s behavior abroad to that of the Third Reich, seems to rarely miss an opportunity to score points at Washington's expense.

Daniel Treisman
Daniel Treisman

Yet the reality is that Putin did not seek out this problem, and now that his agents have presumably debriefed Snowden, he would much prefer for it to disappear.

Snowden was -- and remains -- an uninvited guest. Russia's intelligence agencies did not lure the NSA contractor to Moscow. It is not even clear how much they will have learned from him. Russian intelligence must have known already that the NSA was comprehensively monitoring telephone and Internet traffic.

Putin, who has never shown a soft spot for whistle-blowers and civil libertarians, is certainly not sheltering Snowden on humanitarian grounds. As a former KGB colonel, he understands the U.S. intelligence community's desire to get the leaker back.

Edward Snowden's father talks Amnesty
How Snowden affects US-Russia relations
Russia gives Snowden temporary asylum

But Putin is stuck. He cannot extradite Snowden to the U.S. without looking subservient. At the same time, he has no real interest in further damaging relations with Washington.

That might seem strange given the angry rhetoric that regularly issues from Moscow, in particular from the Parliament, where Putin's United Russia party dominates. Just in December, Putin signed a bill banning the adoption of Russian orphans by Americans.

However, anti-Americanism has always been a complicated game for the Russian president. On the one hand, it plays well in the provinces. Since December 2011, when Moscow's boulevards erupted into protest, Putin has faced the most serious political challenge of his career. Having lost the support of sophisticated urbanites, his priority has been to shore up his provincial base.

One key strategy has been to appeal to more traditional and nationalist constituencies. Kremlin operatives attempt to discredit Putin's critics by portraying them as stooges for an interventionist Washington that seeks to interfere in Russian domestic life. In 2007, Putin compared his opponents to "jackals," scrounging around outside foreign embassies for handouts.

Although exploiting xenophobia may seem crude, it works with some segments of the population. Putin wins widespread credit for standing up for Russia's rights and restoring the country's position in the world.

Still, while insisting on Russian sovereignty, Putin loses the aura of a skilled statesman if his policies provoke genuine crises. Behind the scenes, and even in public, he has sought accommodation on certain international issues. Putin, the anti-American in chief, personally faced down communist protesters to permit NATO to build a transit hub in the city of Ulyanovsk.

Some in Washington have urged President Obama to skip the G20 summit in St. Petersburg in September. Sen. Lindsey Graham even suggested boycotting the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics. Putin would clearly like to avoid such snubs.

But were they to occur, he would cast them as yet another show of U.S. arrogance, a slap in the face not for him personally but for Russia. Assuming the leaders of Western European countries -- where many sympathize with Snowden -- do come to St. Petersburg, the final impression produced by Obama's empty chair might be less of Russian humiliation than of U.S. isolation.

For this and other reasons, the White House would probably also prefer to move beyond the Snowden issue. The U.S. public appears ambivalent at this point, uncomfortable about both Snowden's law-breaking and the scope of government snooping.

Yet the longer the issue remains in the public eye, the more embarrassing it is likely to become for the administration. For a U.S. attorney general to have to guarantee that a suspect would not be tortured if returned shows how much has changed over the past 12 years. The more officials turn out to have "misspoken" in denying existing surveillance programs, the lower trust in government is likely to sink.

At the same time, the U.S. has a broader agenda on which it needs to negotiate with Moscow. Syria continues to bleed. Although odds of a breakthrough are low, a joint U.S.-Russian peace conference is supposed to take place in Geneva this fall. The Iranian and North Korean nuclear programs remain urgent challenges. On these and other issues, Russia's U.N. Security Council seat makes it a crucial player.

Through 2014, as U.S. troops withdraw from Afghanistan, the NATO transport route across Russian territory will remain important. If Secretary of State John Kerry's latest attempt to revive Middle East peace talks is to bear fruit, the U.S. will at least need to persuade Russia not to become a spoiler.

Finally, even on Snowden, the White House may not want to push the Russians too far. As Andrew Kuchins, director of the Russia and Eurasia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, points out, the U.S. could do worse than to have Snowden remain -- under tight control -- in Moscow.

If Putin honors his pledge to stop Snowden harming what Putin called his "American partners," then at least further leaks will be prevented. Were the Russians in frustration to put their uninvited guest on a plane to Ecuador or Cuba, the next morning's newspapers might contain additional revelations.

Follow CNN Opinion on Twitter

Join the conversation on Facebook

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Daniel Treisman.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 9:29 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Cornell Belcher says the story of the "tea party wave" in 2010 was bogus; it was an election determined by ebbing Democratic turnout
updated 4:12 PM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Les Abend says pilots want protocols, preparation and checklists for all contingencies; at the moment, controlling a deadly disease is out of their comfort zone
updated 11:36 PM EDT, Sun October 19, 2014
David Weinberger says an online controversy that snowballed from a misogynist attack by gamers into a culture war is a preview of the way news is handled in a world of hashtag-fueled scandal
updated 8:23 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Julian Zelizer says Paul Krugman makes some good points in his defense of President Obama but is premature in calling him one of the most successful presidents.
updated 10:21 PM EDT, Sun October 19, 2014
Conservatives can't bash and slash government and then suddenly act surprised if government isn't there when we need it, writes Sally Kohn
updated 8:28 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
ISIS is looking to take over a good chunk of the Middle East -- if not the entire Muslim world, write Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider.
updated 9:00 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
The world's response to Ebola is its own sort of tragedy, writes John Sutter
updated 4:33 PM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
Hidden away in Russian orphanages are thousands of children with disabilities who aren't orphans, whose harmful treatment has long been hidden from public view, writes Andrea Mazzarino
updated 1:22 PM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
When you hear "trick or treat" this year, think "nudge," writes John Bare
updated 12:42 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
The more than 200 kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls have become pawns in a larger drama, writes Richard Joseph.
updated 9:45 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
Peggy Drexler said Amal Alamuddin was accused of buying into the patriarchy when she changed her name to Clooney. But that was her choice.
updated 4:43 PM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
Ford Vox says the CDC's Thomas Frieden is a good man with a stellar resume who has shown he lacks the unique talents and vision needed to confront the Ebola crisis
updated 4:58 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
How can such a numerically small force as ISIS take control of vast swathes of Syria and Iraq?
updated 9:42 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
How big a threat do foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq pose to the West? It's a question that has been much on the mind of policymakers and commentators.
updated 8:21 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
More than a quarter-million American women served honorably in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Now they are home, we have an obligation to help them transition back to civilian life.
updated 4:27 PM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
Paul Begala says Rick Scott's deeply weird refusal to begin a debate because rival Charlie Crist had a fan under his podium spells disaster for the Florida governor--delighting Crist
updated 12:07 AM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
The longer we wait to engage on Ebola, the more limited our options will become, says Marco Rubio.
updated 7:53 AM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Democratic candidates who run from President Obama in red states where he is unpopular are making a big mistake, says Donna Brazile
updated 12:29 AM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
At some 7 billion people, the world can sometimes seem like a crowded place. But if the latest estimates are to be believed, then in less than a century it is going to feel even more so -- about 50% more crowded, says Evan Fraser
updated 12:53 PM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Paul Callan says the Ebola situation is pointing up the need for better leadership
updated 6:45 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Nurses are the unsung heroes of the Ebola outbreak. Yet, there are troubling signs we're failing them, says John Sutter
updated 1:00 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Dean Obeidallah says it's a mistake to give up a business name you've invested energy in, just because of a new terrorist group
updated 7:01 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Fear of Ebola is contagious, writes Mel Robbins; but it's time to put the disease in perspective
updated 1:44 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Oliver Kershaw says that if Big Tobacco is given monopoly of e-cigarette products, public health will suffer.
updated 9:35 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
Stop thinking your job will make you happy.
updated 10:08 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says it's time to deal with another scandal involving the Secret Service — one that leads directly into the White House.
updated 7:25 AM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Americans who choose to fight for militant groups or support them are young and likely to be active in jihadist social media, says Peter Bergen
updated 9:03 AM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Stephanie Coontz says 11 years ago only one state allowed same sex marriage. Soon, some 60% of Americans will live where gays can marry. How did attitudes change so quickly?
updated 4:04 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Legalizing assisted suicide seems acceptable when focusing on individuals. But such laws would put many at risk of immense harm, writes Marilyn Golden.
updated 9:07 AM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Julian Zelizer says the issues are huge, but both parties are wrestling with problems that alienate voters
updated 6:50 PM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Mel Robbins says the town's school chief was right to cancel the season, but that's just the beginning of what needs to be done
updated 11:43 AM EDT, Sat October 11, 2014
He didn't discover that the world was round, David Perry writes. So what did he do?
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT