With Snowden in Middle, U.S. and Russia Joust, and Cool Off
By David M. Herszenhorn, Ellen Barry and Peter Baker, NY Times, June 25, 2013
MOSCOW—President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia on Tuesday appeared to rule out sending Edward J. Snowden back to the United States to face espionage charges, leaving him in limbo even as Moscow and Washington seemed to be making an effort to prevent a cold-war-style standoff from escalating.
In his first public comments on the case, Mr. Putin said that Mr. Snowden—the former National Security Agency contractor who leaked documents about American surveillance programs—had committed no crime on Russian soil and was “a free man” who could choose his own destination. “We can only extradite some foreign nationals to the countries with which we have the relevant international agreements on extradition,” he added. “With the United States, we have no such agreement.”
But while American officials remained angry at China for letting Mr. Snowden fly to Moscow, they and their Russian counterparts toned down the red-hot language that threatened a deeper rupture in relations. Mr. Putin said he saw little to gain in the conflict. “It’s like shearing a piglet,” he said. “There’s a lot of squealing and very little wool.”
The Russian president’s remarks during an official visit to Finland also underscored what may be the lasting damage the case has caused for American relations with both Moscow and Beijing. In noting that Mr. Snowden viewed himself as a “human rights activist” who “struggles for freedom of information,” Mr. Putin made clear that it would be harder for President Obama to claim the moral high ground when he presses foreign leaders to stop repressing dissenters and halt cyberattacks.
In the days since Mr. Snowden fled Hong Kong for Moscow, the Russians and the Chinese have seized both on his revelations about surveillance and the fact that the United States is seeking his arrest to make the case for a you-do-it-too argument. Igor Morozov, a Russian lawmaker, wrote that the case exposed an American “policy of double standards.” Xinhua, the state-owned Chinese news agency, editorialized that “the United States, which has long been trying to play innocent as a victim of cyberattacks, has turned out to be the biggest villain in our age.”
American officials said such arguments were false equivalences, saying that there was no comparison between Congressionally sanctioned and court-monitored surveillance programs, or the prosecution of Mr. Snowden, and the actions taken by the governments in Moscow and Beijing. But it is an argument that Washington may find difficult to sell in some parts of the world, even among some American allies, and it is fueling criticism inside the United States.
The arguments could complicate American initiatives with both countries.
Until lately, the United States seemed to have Beijing on the defensive, with evidence that Chinese military units were behind recent computer attacks. Then Mr. Snowden told a Hong Kong newspaper that the United States had been engaged in a vigorous hacking campaign in China.
Mr. Obama has insisted that there is a difference between common espionage and China’s behavior. “Every country in the world, large and small, engages in intelligence gathering,” he told Charlie Rose in an interview on PBS. But intelligence gathering is different from “a hacker directly connected with the Chinese government or the Chinese military breaking into Apple’s software systems to see if they can obtain the designs for the latest Apple product,” he said.
"That’s theft," the president added, "and we can’t tolerate that."
China does not acknowledge the theft, or buy Mr. Obama’s argument. “The timing couldn’t be worse for Obama,” one senior Asian diplomat said. “I know he draws distinctions between stealing intellectual property and spying, but for most people that difference is not significant.”
The timing is also bad with Russia, which Mr. Obama is depending on to help resolve the war in Syria. When Secretary of State John Kerry criticized Russia on Monday as a repressive country, he personally offended Mr. Putin and Foreign Minister Sergey V. Lavrov. On Tuesday, Mr. Lavrov lashed out at the United States, saying, “There are no legal grounds for this kind of behavior from American officials toward us.”
Within hours, though, the two sides appeared to pull back. Mr. Kerry told reporters traveling with him in Saudi Arabia that the United States was “not looking for a confrontation.” And American and Russian officials meeting in Geneva on Tuesday scheduled a session next week between Mr. Kerry and Mr. Lavrov to discuss Syria.
Mr. Putin, who is scheduled to host Mr. Obama in St. Petersburg and Moscow in September, said he hoped the Snowden case would “not affect in any way the businesslike character of our relations with the United States.”
But the case may be drawing Russia and China closer together, and Beijing’s action may influence Moscow’s decision. The two governments have consulted on the case, with the Chinese explaining why it allowed Mr. Snowden to leave Hong Kong even though the United States had revoked his passport and requested his arrest, said Dimitri K. Simes, president of the Center for the National Interest, a policy research group in Washington.
"These conversations clearly make it more difficult for Russia to appear weak by making a concession while Beijing stood its ground," Mr. Simes said.
The Obama administration argued Tuesday that even though the United States and Russia did not have an extradition treaty, Washington had regularly sent back Russians sought by Moscow. Over the last five years, the Department of Homeland Security said Tuesday, the United States had returned 1,700 Russian citizens, with more than 500 of them being “criminal deportations.”
But in Moscow, Mr. Snowden was being compared to cold war dissidents. “I have never heard of any case when the United States would extradite someone’s fugitive spy,” said Vlacheslav Nikonov, a member of Parliament. “It just never happened. Why would they expect that would happen?”
As for the subject of all this attention, Mr. Snowden remained in the transit zone of Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport. Mr. Putin said Russian intelligence agencies had not questioned him, although some independent analysts cast doubt on that assertion. “If I still worked there, I would talk to him,” said Aleksandr Kondaurov, a retired K.G.B. general.
Mr. Snowden, who remained out of sight for another day, has requested asylum from Ecuador. There are no direct flights from Moscow to Quito, the Ecuadorean capital, so if he were to head there, he might travel through Havana. The next flight from Moscow to Havana is Thursday.