Face the Nation, one of America’s premier Sunday political talk shows, spent a good part of this weekend’s broadcast discussing something many in U.S. political circles have been wondering this week: why would Russian President Vladimir Putin give sanctuary to Edward Snowden?
Speaking of the decision to offer Snowden asylum, Face the Nation host Bob Schieffer asked Senator Chuck Schumer, “Why do you think Putin did this? I mean, this, kind of, has a high school-like scenario to it. But, you know, often nations have some reason behind their actions. Do you think this was a calculated strategy on his part?”
The senior New York Democrat responded by saying that he felt it had to do with Putin’s resentment over Russia losing the Cold War and the general decline in Russian power.
Speaking to the New York Times’ David Sanger later in the show, Schieffer again returned to the subject, saying of Snowden’s decision, “It’s kind of following a kind of high school scenario here. Here you have Putin sort of — sort of taking on the role of Hugo Chavez. I mean, nobody thought Venezuela posed any kind of threat to the United States, but Chavez apparently thought he could really make his place in the world by poking his finger in the eye of the giant,” referring to the United States.
Sanger concurred saying, “I think that’s exactly right, Bob. This is half high school, half Cold War playbook.”
There may be some truth to these statements. Nonetheless, they show the complete lack of self-awareness that is too often commonplace among American leaders in their interactions with the outside world.
The truth of the matter is that if Edward Snowden had been a Russian spy who arrived in New York or Washington after telling the international press all about Moscow’s domestic surveillance programs, the U.S. would have provided him asylum without question.
Indeed, it is highly likely that a primary reason Putin offered Snowden asylum was to take revenge against the U.S. for its constant concern about human rights violations in Russia. One of the most recent examples of this was the sanctions the Congress enacted against certain members of the Russian government over the case of Russian lawyer and whistleblower Sergei Magnitsky. Magnitsky, of course, was a whistleblower and outspoken critic of the Putin regime, who was detained in Russia over alleged tax evasion. He died in prison allegedly after beatings he sustained at the hands of prison officials who were believed to be acting on Moscow’s orders.
In response, last December, Congress passed the Russia and Moldova Jackson-Vanik Repeal and Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act of 2012, which sanctioned a number of Russian officials believed to have been involved in the case. This infuriated Moscow to no end, who berated the U.S. for interfering in Russia’s domestic affairs. Russia was hell-bent on retaliating, which it tried to do by sanctioning U.S. officials involved in Guantanamo Bay and other human rights abuses. The problem it encountered in doing this was that the U.S. has far more influence around the world—especially in financial markets—than Russia. Thus, these sanctions hardly could be depicted as an “eye-for-an-eye.”
Then Edward Snowden appeared on Moscow’s doorstep, claiming to be a whistleblower much as Magnitsky was said to be by his Western supporters. Many people in the U.S., this author included, do not consider Snowden to be a whistleblower. Nonetheless, in holding this view, we are in the minority worldwide by a long shot, and even in the United States according to some surveys. Snowden’s status as a whistleblower has also been upheld by respected human rights organizations like Amnesty International.
Furthermore, Snowden was claiming that he was on the run because he feared that he would not receive a fair trial in the United States, and might even receive the death penalty (the U.S. pledged not to seek the death penalty if he was returned). To make this case he pointed to other recent trials like the one Bradley Manning received. This author disagrees that Snowden would not receive a fair trial in the U.S., but again I would consider myself as part of a small minority of people predominately located in the U.S. on this point.
So Putin, still spiteful over the Magnitsky case in particular, and America’s constant criticisms over his human rights violations in general, was presented with an American citizen claiming to be exposing human rights abuses the U.S. government is committing against the American people who feared he claimed he would be unfairly persecuted by an overzealous American administration. Moreover, in making these charges, he was widely supported by the vast majority of the international community.
In other words, Putin was handed a golden opportunity to extract payback against all the Congressional and U.S. officials who have been harshly critical of his human rights record, and he took it. Indeed, it would have been shocking if he didn’t.
None of this is to say that the U.S. intelligence programs are in anyway equivalent to some of the widespread human rights abuses that have taken place in Russia under Putin. Nor is it to argue that the U.S. should not take an active concern in human rights violations worldwide. But in doing so we should not expect other countries to standby idly, especially when an opportunity like Snowden presents itself.