Edward Snowden’s Russian Layover Tells Us That the Cold War Is Back

Opinions about events beyond our borders.
June 26 2013 10:55 AM

The Cold War Is Back

Edward Snowden’s long layover reminds us that Russia is not an ally.

Edward Snowden
Edward Snowden, pictured here in Hong Kong, has been at the Sheremetyevo International Airport since flying to Russia.

Handout/the Guardian

For those who think that Edward Snowden deserves arrest or worse, cheer yourselves with the thought that Sheremetyevo International Airport might possibly be the most soul-destroying, most angst-inducing transport hub in the world. Low ceilings and dim lighting create a sense of impending doom, while overpriced wristwatches glitter in the murk. Sullen salesgirls peddle stale sandwiches; men in bad suits drink silently at the bars. A vague scent of diesel fuel fills the air, and a thin layer of grime covers the backless benches and sticky floor. It's not a place you'd want to spend two hours, let alone 48.

Yet there he remains, a guest of the Russian government. Russian President Vladimir Putin and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov both have repeated the fiction that Snowden "did not cross the Russian border" because he remains in the transit zone at Sheremetyevo. But as of Monday evening, Snowden was in violation of Russian law, which requires anyone staying in the airport longer than 24 hours to have a valid transit visa. Whether Russian authorities have given him a visa or are allowing him to break the law, they have made a deliberate decision to let him remain there, assuming they are not holding him against his will.

Secretary of State John Kerry has appealed for Snowden's extradition on grounds of "respect for the rule of law." Although the United States has no extradition treaty with Russia, Kerry has pointed out that it has transferred seven people to Russia in the past two years to honor Russian requests. For the moment, the Russians seem disinclined to respect the rule of law, which is not surprising as they don't respect it at home. The last time a prominent former Russian secret service agent escaped to the West, Russian agents poisoned him with polonium 210, leaving a trail of radiation all over London and Hamburg.

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Too much remains opaque, and too much reporting seems sensationalized, to draw conclusions on what this affair says about the National Security Agency, except that it is shockingly bad at protecting supposedly secret information. But something interesting has been revealed about the nature of contemporary international relations. In this narrow sense, the Cold War is back: We are once again dealing with a Russian government that sees the world ideologically, in black and white. What's bad for us is good for them, and vice versa. If Snowden is embarrassing to the United States, he should be protected as long as possible. If we think Bashar Assad is cruelly and recklessly destroying Syria, then Russia will lend him support. If we fear Iran's nuclear program, then Russia will help build it.

Russian foreign policy also has an internal logic: It is intended to support the legitimacy of the current regime. Russia has no important economic or geostrategic interests in Syria, but the fall of another dictator might send a message of encouragement to its own people. With Snowden, the Russians are treading carefully. Although the temptation to use him as an anti-American propaganda tool must be very strong, they haven't praised him too loudly, perhaps for fear of encouraging the hacking of their own government's documents.

This incident underscores that no common worldview can be relied upon in dealing with this Russian government; there is no agreement about international rules of the game, let alone the rule of law. That is, of course, the case with many countries, but since the 1990s many in Washington have maintained the illusion that there can or should be a special relationship between the two former superpowers. Bill Clinton's decision to let Russia join the Group of Eight was the result of one such outreach. The Obama administration's ill-fated "reset" of Russian-American relations was another.

That doesn't mean there can be no resolution: It is perfectly possible that, as in Cold War days, Russian authorities will seek to trade Snowden for something or someone else they want, whether a spy or a criminal. It is possible that they will detain him for a while to see if he can be useful. By the time you read this, they might have just let him go elsewhere, as the Chinese did, to rid themselves of the problem. But they won't send him home as a gesture of good will or a matter of principle, as Kerry seems to hope. We can expect that only from some of our allies, and Russia isn't one at all.