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Russia balancing Snowden's fate with need to maintain US ties

(Global Times)

08:09, July 18, 2013

"As soon as he is allowed to go somewhere else, I hope he will do that," Russian President Vladimir Putin said Monday. He made the comments publicly for the first time since July 12 when Edward Snowden repeated his intention to seek political asylum in Russia.

Besides reiterating his expectation that the Snowden affair would not harm Russia's relations with the US, he also subtly implied that it was the US government that was responsible for the former National Security Agency (NSA)contactor's current plight.

Analysts think the change of tone on the Russian side may result from fear of political consequences, but this does not hold water.

Russia is a country with sufficient self-confidence, a legacy since ancient times. Its current president, famous for his "hard man" image, has seldom changed his decisions fundamentally.

Viewed as a balancing power against US hegemony, Russia is supposed to provide assistance to Snowden. But Putin's implication that the whistle-blower is better-off leaving demonstrates that Moscow attaches more importance to its bilateral tries with the US.

On the one hand, uncertainties in Russia-US relations were further intensified by Washington's interference in the Kremlin's internal affairs and their contentions on the issue of human rights the previous year.

On the road to regaining its status as a great power, Russia needs financial and technological support from the US for its industrial restructuring and economic growth.

And the US, which has not recovered from recession, also badly needs a peaceful external environment to help revitalize its economy and achieve domestic stability.

On the other hand, Russia will host the G20 leaders' summit in St. Petersburg in September. The Kremlin is sparing no efforts to ensure the multilateral meeting is successful, and improving bilateral relations with the US is a pivotal move.

In such circumstances, Putin will not allow the Snowden affair to threaten the meeting. As the holder of the rotating presidency, Russia longs to display its power and improve its status on the world stage.

Moscow is now stuck in a dilemma. Russia's human rights body and the general public have been urging the government to grant temporary asylum to the 29-year-old intelligence whistle-blower as the US betrayed its long-term advocacy of cyber security and liberty.

The NSA's secret surveillance programs, which collect millions of telephone records and track overseas Internet activities, has exposed the hypocrisy of the White House.

The international community is showing sympathy and support for the "human rights defender," and expecting Russia to accept him out of morality and justice.

Though charged with espionage, theft and conversion of government property, Snowden did not commit any crime in Russia as he was not found to have cooperated with intelligence agencies on foreign land. Offering him temporary asylum does not violate international law.

What's more, Russia and the US have no extradition treaties, so Putin has no obligation to fulfill the Obama administration's request to repatriate Snowden.

Washington's cancellation of Snowden's passport also made it impossible for him to either enter Russian territory or head for a third country that has claimed to offer him safe harbor. He has no alternative but to seek asylum in Russia.

There are few direct flights Snowden could board in the transit zone. Even if a Latin American country provides him with valid travel documents, it will still be hard for him to arrive there safely.

Up to now, there has been no better way for Putin to address the Snowden issue.

The former US security contractor has officially applied for temporary asylum in Russia, and the Russian Federal Migration Service has up to three months to make a decision.

In the current stage, Snowden seems to have no option but to hunker down in the transit lounge of Moscow's Sheremetyevo Airport until the White House figures out a proper solution.

This article was compiled by Global Times reporter Wang Xiaonan, based on an interview with Chen Yurong, director of the Department for European-Central Asian Studies at China Institute of International Studies. [email protected]

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