The Kremlin’s cunning Snowden plan

Edward Snowden file photo

(Moscow News – Anna Arutunyan, Editor and Correspondent at themoscownews.com – July 15, 2013)

On Friday, NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden invited about a dozen Russian rights activists to the transit zone of Sheremetyevo Airport, where he’s been holed up for three weeks. The announcement took about 200 journalists on a wild goose chase, and a weekend later, there’s still a lot of head-scratching going on.

“It was a very strange event,” Human Rights Watch director Tatyana Lokshina told me on Monday. “I don’t even know whether it was [Snowden’s] idea or not. It was like a press conference, but there were no journalists.”

The gist of what happened at the meeting – segments of which have been paraphrased by several participants whose testimonies are at times conflicting – is that Snowden said he wanted to apply for temporary political asylum in Russia.

Snowden already applied for Russian asylum – at least, his request was confirmed as having been received on July 1 by a representative at the Foreign Ministry’s consular desk at Sheremetyevo Airport. It was confirmed, too, by WikiLeaks, the whistleblowing organization that supports him.

Practically at the same time as his asylum request hit the news waves and threatened to further jeopardize already tense relations between Russia and the United States, President Vladimir Putin came out with a very enigmatic statement. Sure, Snowden can stay in Russia, he said on July 1, but on “one condition: he must stop his work aimed at harming our American partners.”

Putin himself acknowledged the strangeness of such a comment. On the surface, it would appear that Snowden is “a gift” for Russia, a stinging demonstration that despite Americans’ criticism of Russia’s human rights record at home, here was an American whistleblower asking for asylum in Russia. Leaders of Latin American countries where Snowden applied for asylum used the same rhetoric. Why Putin was suddenly expressing loyalty to his “American partners” was a mystery.

The following day, Putin’s spokesman said that Snowden didn’t want Russian asylum after all, in light of the president’s provision. There was neither confirmation nor denial from either Snowden or WikiLeaks.

What happened since then? Was there some sort of cunning plan hatched in the Kremlin regarding Snowden? If there was, it has likely gone the way of cunning plans on “Blackadder.”

As analyst Dmitry Trenin wrote in Foreign Policy magazine last week, Russia’s designs on Snowden, whatever they were, had gone awry.

Fast-forward to last Friday, when Snowden called the meeting at Sheremetyevo Airport.

By some accounts, he said he wanted rights activists to support him with his asylum request before Russian authorities. But why, if Putin had already said under which conditions Snowden could stay?

Lokshina had a different angle on the Friday meeting. “The first and main thing that he asked is for [us] to call on the United States to stop limiting his freedom of movement,” she told me. “Where his asylum request is concerned, that was an answer to a question on whether he wanted us to support his request before the government. He said yes, that would be important.”

According to Olga Kostina, a member of Russia’s Public Chamber advisory body who was also at the meeting, the main purpose of the meeting was getting Snowden’s position across to the international community by utilizing rights activists who would then talk to the media.

“He understood that after the meeting we would be talking to a lot of foreign media,” Kostina said on Monday.

Snowden, it appears, wasn’t so much asking rights activists for specific help as using them as his spokespeople. Whatever the Kremlin does or doesn’t have up its sleeve, whether it facilitated this meeting or not (and if it did, then probably not directly), this is an incredibly convenient development.

Russian rights activists, often pictured criticizing abuses back home, were standing up in the defense of an American whistleblower.

Now, if the Kremlin does give Snowden asylum, it has a foolproof excuse: the human rights community asked it.