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Snowden’s personal saga comes at bad moment for Russia-US relations

Published time: July 13, 2013 13:50
Reuters / Sergei Karpukhin

With opposition to Russia practically an innate precondition of the American political system, NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden seeking refuge in Moscow can only worsen the bilateral relationship, NYU Professor Stephen Cohen tells RT.

RT: Washington has accused Russia of providing Snowden with a “propaganda platform” that further harms the US. What impact might this have on relations between Russia and the US?

Stephen Cohen: Well, it can only be bad, and it comes at a bad moment, because for the last month or so there’s been an opportunity for Russia-American cooperation of the kind we haven’t had a in a long time. It began with the Boston bombings when our anti-terrorist forces and Russian anti-terror forces began to work together. And then, was the announcement that Russia and America would co-sponsor a renewal of the conference in Switzerland on Syria. Those are absolutely fundamental issues that affect all of us.

Snowden’s personal saga has taken the oxygen out of that, and still worse, it has created - particularly in Washington, where there’s a lot of political opposition to any improvement in relations with Russia - it’s enhanced, it’s encouraged that opposition. So it’s a bad development in terms of American-Russian relations.

RT: Barack Obama and Vladimir Putin apparently discussed the Snowden matter over the phone. What could they agree on? Do you think they found any kind of common ground?

SC: Let me put it like this: This is a classic case of a testing of leadership both in Moscow and in Washington. Neither Obama nor Putin can be happy about Mr. Snowden sitting in a Moscow airport. Putin didn’t invite him to Russia, but he can’t toss him out for very political reasons. Obama needs to show he’s tough on the Snowden issue.

Vladimir Putin (RIA Novosti / Aleksey Nikolskyi)

I can’t believe that the United States actually wants to put Snowden on trial, because if it was a fair trial, a legal trial, Snowden would have the right to subpoena American officials who have knowledge of all this intelligence he’s exposed. That would not be good. So I think there’s a vested interest, both with Obama and Putin, to find a way to solve this problem so that neither is damaged politically. So we’ll now see what kind of leaders they are.

RT: So in the case that Russia does grant refuge to Snowden, temporary as it may be, what reaction do you think there might be from the White House?

SC: Well I don’t know about the White House, but from the Congress - which is extremely anti-Russian, anti-Putin, anti-Kremlin - and again, I want to emphasize that I think Obama is kind of caught in the middle of this, as is Putin.  The reaction will be loud, angry, threatening, demanding. But the key word, if we're going to talk about the practicality of this, which you used is the word “temporary” – temporary asylum. I doubt seriously that Russia or Snowden is thinking about permanent residence in Russia. It wouldn’t be good for Snowden, and it wouldn’t be good for Russia.

It appears that the idea is to get him out of the airport so that he can get a travel document and go to the embassy of a country that is going to give him asylum. At the moment that’s rumored to be Venezuela. These are kind of legalistic issues, but the politics of it, as you say, is explosive because at stake is really Russia-American relations at the moment. And feelings in Washington, and maybe in America generally, against Putin in particular, for no rational reason…run so high that the Snowden affair is exasperating it. So I think a lot hangs in the balance, any kind of cooperation on terrorism, on Syria, on other things we can think of, is now kind of plugged into Mr. Snowden’s personal saga.

Russian supporters of US National Security Agency (NSA) fugitive leaker Edward Snowden rally in central Moscow on July 12, 2013 (AFP Photo / Evgeny Feldman)

RT: Do you think there’s a possibility that Snowden, after leaving Russia, could end up in the US?

SC: That’s a complicated question. I would have said 40 years ago he might have done as Daniel Ellsberg did when he took the Pentagon Papers, because he knew when he turned himself in he would be out on bail and be free to organize his own defense at a trial. The publicity would be considerable. But we live in a different America where people like Snowden are locked away, like Manning is in the WikiLeaks case, and nobody can get to him except for his lawyers. We couldn’t even be sure that Snowden would have safe conduct in the United States, or be able to mount a public defense. So I doubt that without such assurances Snowden would return to the United States. Now, if Obama wants to give him those assurances, that’s a different question, but I doubt that. I think Snowden’s on his way to a third country.

RT: In 20 years’ time, theoretically speaking, do you think Edward Snowden will look back on this and think it was all worth it, or does that depend on how it turns out for him?

SC: Well, I don’t think the question, if you don’t mind me revising it, is what Snowden will think in 20 years, it’s what public opinion, particularly American public opinion, will think in 20 years. And here’s the problem, again: the personal drama of Edward Snowden sitting in the Moscow airport for quite a long time, a man without a country. So he’s not legally without a country, but he has no passport. 

The problem is, that drama has obscured the discussion we should be having here in the United States about whether the activities that Snowden revealed on the part of American intelligence services were legitimate or not. We Americans have to ask: Are we okay with that? Do we really believe we need that kind of invasion of our privacy to protect us from terrorism? It’s a legitimate and burning question. But we’re not having the conversation in the United States because the attention is focused on what is going to happen to Snowden personally. And I would guess that Snowden himself, since he said he made this knowledge public, because he wanted to provoke that conversation, must be disappointed that that conversation is not happening in the United States.

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