WASHINGTON, August 8 (By Carl Schreck for RIA Novosti) – Less than 24 hours after fugitive intelligence contractor Edward Snowden touched down in Moscow on a flight from Hong Kong six weeks ago, the US administration launched an aggressive public campaign to pressure Russia to expel the accused leaker to face espionage charges at home.
It was an approach that was doomed to fail, analysts in Washington and Moscow told RIA Novosti on Thursday, one that put the Kremlin on the defensive and allowed Snowden to assume an outsized role in bilateral ties.
“It was almost as if the US administration didn’t want Russia to give up Snowden,” said Alexei Mukhin, head of the Center for Political Information, a Moscow-based think tank.
Russia’s decision to grant Snowden temporary asylum last week is a move the Obama administration should have seen coming from the moment he landed at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport on June 23, said Steven Pifer, a former US ambassador to Ukraine.
“The administration should have understood … that they’re not going to get him back,” Pifer told RIA Novosti. “I question the wisdom of asking a guy to do something when a) I know he won’t do it; and b) if the situation were reversed, and he asked something similar, you would not do it.”
Pifer cited the case of Alexander Poteyev, a former Russian intelligence officer believed to be living in the United States whom Russia convicted in absentia of disclosing the identities of a group of alleged Russian sleeper agents arrested and deported by US authorities in 2010.
“It’s inconceivable to me that the United States would return a Russian defector,” Pifer said.
Washington has continued to call on Russia to expel Snowden, whom US officials have described as a criminal suspect – not a whistleblower, as he is viewed by many in the United States and around the world – facing serious charges of leaking classified information about US telephone and electronic surveillance programs.
Officials in Washington have sought to bolster their case by noting that the United States has handed suspected criminals over to Russia in the spirit of cooperation despite the absence of a formal extradition treaty between the two countries.
The Snowden issue is expected to be discussed during talks in Washington on Friday between US Secretary of State John Kerry, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, and the two countries’ top defense officials.
The talks come just two days after the White House announced it had scrapped a planned summit between US President Barack Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin next month, citing Snowden’s asylum as “a factor” in the decision.
The White House’s decision to eschew quiet diplomacy from the outset of Snowden’s flight to Russia left the Kremlin with only one choice given its reluctance to be perceived as caving to Washington’s demands, said Mukhin.
“If Russia had transferred Snowden into US custody, it would have meant a loss of face for the Russian leadership,” he told RIA Novosti.
Moscow might have been willing to negotiate in the matter, and a quiet diplomatic tack taken by Washington would have been “far more effective” in convincing the Kremlin to help return Snowden to the United States, Mukhin added.
The Obama administration’s public attempts to pressure Moscow to hand over Snowden created the illusion that there was a chance Russia would expel the former National Security Agency contractor, Pifer said. This, in turn, led to sharp criticism of Russia from US lawmakers and ultimately led to Snowden assuming “an outsized role in US-Russian relations,” he added.
Spying and defector scandals have long been a part of relations between Washington and Moscow, but in the past the two sides have managed to prevent these diplomatic dustups from overwhelming the bilateral agenda, he said.
In 1986, the United States expelled dozens of Soviet diplomats, “and that was a minor bump in the relationship,” Pifer said.
“I don’t think it was properly isolated this time.”