Skip to Content

Support MinnPost

Why Putin relishes the Snowden affair

A television screens the image of former NSA contractor Edward Snowden
REUTERS/Sergei Karpukhin
A television screens the image of former NSA contractor Edward Snowden during a news bulletin at a cafe at Moscow's Sheremetyevo airport on Wednesday.

Russian President Vladimir Putin is putting his own spin on the Edward Snowden NSA security leak story.

Speaking at a press conference in Helsinki Wednesday, Putin said the Snowden affair was not that big of a deal. He cast the story of a major breach of U.S. security, the embarrassingly inept U.S. pursuit of a fugitive and the sudden flare-up of confrontational rhetoric between Washington and Moscow as nothing but small change.

Always rather pithy in his off-the-cuff-style remarks, he delivered one of his “putinisms” to characterize his view of the story: “In any case, I would not like to deal with such issues because it is like shearing a pig: There’s lots of squealing and little fleece.”

The week before the United States inadvertently set up the story as if pitching a softball to Putin. The United States charged Snowden with espionage under one of our nation’s more questionable legal statutes, the Espionage Act of 1917. It and a second law passed a year later, the Sedition Act, took aim at pacifists, socialists and dissidents who opposed U.S. entry into World War I.  

The law’s most famous victim was the leader of the Socialist Party, Eugene V. Debs, who received a 10-year prison sentence for speaking out against the law. The legislation has provided legal cover for such dubious chapters in our history as the first “Red Scare” in 1919 -- conducted by President Woodrow Wilson’s attorney general, Mitchell Palmer (with the enthusiastic assistance of his right-hand man, a young J. Edgar Hoover) -- and McCarthyism in the early 1950s, for which U.S. Sen. Joseph McCarthy also enjoyed the help of Hoover.  

Putin appears to relish the Snowden affair as an opportunity to deliver a bit of payback to the Obama administration. Thanks to Wikileaks in 2009, Putin learned that at precisely the time the Obama administration publicly promised to “re-set” U.S. and Russia relations, privately officials within the State Department caricatured the Russian leader and described his regime as a “mafia state.”

Thanks to Snowden’s leaking of NSA documents, Putin has learned that the United States was eavesdropping on telephone conversations at the 2009 G20 Summit of then-President Dmitry Medvedev. If that’s how Obama treated Medvedev, whom the president called “my friend, Dmitry,” how would he treat Putin? You can’t accuse Obama and Putin of being hypocritical about their relationship. They have never pretended to like one another.

The Snowden affair is also Putin’s way of marking July’s third anniversary of the CIA’s exposé of Russian “sleepers,” the case involving 10 FSB (the successor to the infamous KGB of the Soviet era) spies planted in the United States.

The episode was a fiasco and singular embarrassment to the Russian security forces. Putin can only hope that the FSB’s counterparts in the CIA and NSA are at least as embarrassed by the knowledge that Snowden is now in Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport.

No moral high ground

No one has the high moral ground in this story. Snowden, the self-proclaimed patriot acting to expose our government’s threats to our civil rights, turns for help to China and Russia, who are on nobody’s list of defenders of civil rights and champions of transparency in government. The United States stoops to the Espionage Act to prosecute Snowden. Putin simply couldn’t resist taking a few cheap shots at the U.S.

He scored a few points for his FSB in its never-ending game with the U.S. intelligence agencies. He gained a bit of credibility for his favorite jibe that the United States is hypocritical in its criticism of Russia’s disregard of civil rights and society. Points made.  

In his remarks in Helsinki, Putin also complained that Snowden was “becoming a headache for Russia.” He offered a truce in exchange of neo-Cold War rhetoric that came with Snowden’s arrival in Moscow on Sunday and suggested instead a grown-up conversation about the legalities of extradition, international air space and a diplomatic solution.

He wants this confrontation with Washington to come out as a draw. He certainly does not want to come out as the ally of Snowden or Wikileaks’ Julian Assange or pretend that he shares their commitment to transparency in government.

To extend Putin’s own adage a bit, he has all the fleece he will get from shearing this pig. Putin has nothing more to gain from prolonging the Snowden affair and probably wishes that Snowden had boarded today’s Aeroflot Flight 150 from Moscow to Havana.

Get MinnPost's top stories in your inbox

Related Tags:

About the Author:

Comments (6)

I really doubt that Snowden

I really doubt that Snowden is sitting in the public transit area of the Moscow airport wondering what the hell to do. Reporters have been through there looking for him and did not find him (just as reporters filled up the potential flight to Cuba).

The only possible option is that he was admitted to other areas (in or even out of the airport) by the Russians. Those areas are not accessible to the public and under control of the Russian authorities. Which means the Russian ARE involved, no matter what their protestations are.

The information he has was classified as "top secret" and technically a part of a legally administered surveillance program. Moral or immoral, constitutional or unconstitutional, the program was a formal government program. He took the job with Booz Allen with the specific intent of procuring as much information as possible and disclosing it. Since then he has gone to a vassal state of China and now to Russia carrying that information. There is a very high probability that they have obtained all of the information--everyone must sleep, eat, bathe and defecate sometime--and there are plenty of forms of mischief in those places to obtain information, no mater how special a password he has on the data. He has now disappeared into Russia.

If Putin wanted to be rid of Snowden, Snowden would already be on a plane to somewhere, anywhere, yesterday, seated between two burly guys. Since that isn't the case, that isn't the case.

Snowden is so naive

This simpleton's idea was to go tell the Chinese something they already knew (US electronic spying on them) and - in return - they'd let him stay and live in beautiful Hong Kong. Now look at him, at the mercy of FSB, who - I am sure and agree with you - have obtained from him all of the information he has and can divulge. I would not be surprised if Putin cuts a deal with Obama now and hands him over.

The only legitimate subject matter here...

...is not Vladimir Putin nor China nor Ecuador, nor Wikileaks nor Snowden. These are all deliberate distractions.

Rather, the real matter is, right here in our own government's policies:

...Secret laws,
...Secret courts,
...Secret judicial findings,
...Secret prisons,
...Secret budgets,
...Secret police,
...and perhaps secret violations of our known laws and of the sovereignty of other nations.

All the tools are in place for broad-scale suppression of dissent. This is not something to be concerned about in future. It is here right now.

If you have been paying

If you have been paying attention, none of those are surprising--they have been in the news for over a decade.

The fact is that all those, and perhaps more, have some sort of legal cover or governing rules and laws.

So, how to change that course?

Steal, yes steal, a bunch of secret documents, panic and run to the countries most actively engaged in spy vs. spy with the US ? Set yourself up as the arbiter of what is suitable to disclose while having all of those "too sensitive to reveal" documents within the reach of China and Russia's truly ruthless security services?

This is how it is ending up all about method and means as opposed to ends.

What did he expect to happen? He panicked and ran--not even to a country that has a history of respect for what he did. If the people he had been dealing with on the release had the smallest regard for the personal consequences of his actions, they would have arranged competent legal representation, safe harbor, cover from a respected human rights organization, and secure storage of his information before the initial release.

But now it is all about methods and means.

Doesn't anyone get it...it's the message not the...

If the press; media and the government continue to pursue 'popular appeal'; to label the messenger, in a sad attempt to downsize his credibility and ignore the human rights issue so revealed that is shredding the soul out of our Bill of Rights... then freedom of the press becomes a mere spit ball by honoring the name calling campaign from a formula-challenged press hiding in the back row unable to recognize or too sucked up to report with decency, the issue, the Right of Privacy?

Whistle blowers are downsized, interrogated; sometimes incarcerated and the media who dares to listen and report is not just slapped on the wrist; but too often will lose their job status...so the press follows the same old story line which takes the 'investigative' heart out of journalism?

Few speak up be it out of fear or formula...simply follow follow, follow and eventually destroy any wise man's belief in the power of the word in a free society?

Patriot Act

The American people foolishly rallied to George Bush when he claimed creating the Secret State would make them "safe". Now the other shoe drops and everyone fulminates about "Snowden the Traitor". Well, by these standards, I guess American revolutionaries who fought King George's secret courts were "traitors" too. And so they were. But not to American values or even traditional British values. Snowden obviously wants to drive America back to its pre-Bush conscience. Looks like America is going through a crisis of conscience and not liking it one bit.