2 July 2013, 14:40

Snowden’s Sheremetyevo adventure has both positive and negative sides

Martin Sieff

Martin Sieff

Martin Sieff

Edward Snowden is uncannily like the hapless Prophet Jonah in the Bible: He sinks every ship he every sails on just by being there. Now he is torpedoing what is left of already fragile US-Russian relations.

This article is part of Voice of Russia Experts’ Panel Discussion

Snowden made fools of the US government yet again when he successfully fled Hong Kong for Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport. He is clearly not going to stay in Russia. He wants to get to Ecuador. And Russian President Vladimir Putin, while he will not turn Snowden over to the United States, has made clear he wants him out of Russia as fast as possible. Putin, no fool at any time, can clearly recognize a Jonah-character when he sees him.

As it is, Snowden’s choice of Sheremetyevo Airport has both positive and negative sides. On the positive side, I have many warm memories of its famous Irish bar and I hope the Irish stew there is still cooked by its old Kazakh chef and weirdly seasoned with Central Asian and Persian spices.

On the negative side, Snowden is haplessly doing serious damage to the genuinely important matter of US-Russian relations.

US President Barack Obama got off to an excellent start in his second term in dealing with Moscow when he appointed the experienced, patient and shrewd John Kerry as secretary of state. Kerry was one of the vanishingly rare people left in the US Congress who recognized that good relations between Washington and Moscow are still crucially important to both countries and for the peace and security of the world. New Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel got off to a good start too, reining in potentially reckless new US ballistic missile deployment plans in Central Europe.

But that was then, and this is now. On June 26, while Snowden was still camped out at Sheremetyevo, possibly even enjoying its Kazakh-flavored Irish stew, Secretary Hagel called on Russia to turn Snowden over. The day before, on June 25, Putin had already made clear he would not do that.

In general, the United States and Russia cooperate constructively when it comes to extraditing obvious criminals to each other. But different standards apply when alleged spies or political security threats are involved. Americans would almost certainly have been spared the bombings that killed three innocent people at the Boston Marathon had Russia’s 2011 request for the extradition of Chechen jihadist Tamerlan Tsarnaev been honored by the US authorities. The temptation to play tit-for-tat now with Snowden must have been irresistible to the Kremlin.

The bottom line of Snowden’s misadventures at Sheremetyevo is that they highlight the failure of the US and Russia to establish constructive relations, especially in the critical area of public security. Russia’s refusal to hand Snowden over, even while it refuses to offer him a lasting refuge, should also be seen as payback for the US Congress passing the absurd, witless and plain destructive Magnitsky Act last year.

The gathering of anti-terrorism intelligence – which Snowden is alleged to have compromised and which he may compromise further if he is not gagged – is vital for the public security of both Russia and the United States. The two nuclear superpowers should now agree to craft a new mutual extradition treaty that will focus especially on cooperating in the fight against extreme Islamist terrorism. Of course, this would require US authorities in future to hand over suspected terrorists to Russia as well instead of rashly hailing them as “freedom fighters.” But once in a while, governments are expected to act like adults.


Martin Sieff

Chief Global Analyst, The Globalist

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