Two Presidents and a Leaker

Obama and Putin won't blow up their relationship over Edward Snowden.

President Barack Obama meets with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Enniskillen, Northern Ireland on June 17, 2013.
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The U.S.-Russia relationship is on the skids yet again. Just a week after Presidents Barack Obama and Vladimir Putin announced a new agreement to share information on cyberthreats and two months after the United States and Russia stepped up counterterrorism cooperation in the wake of the Boston bombings, the two countries find themselves at odds over leaker Edward Snowden.

But while tensions are high, neither side will blow up the relationship over the renegade former contractor.

Snowden, on the run since disclosing classified U.S. counterterrorism surveillance programs, fled to Russia from Hong Kong and is presumably in a Moscow airport transit zone. Putin rejected a U.S. request to hand him over and said Snowden is a free man with the right to fly wherever he wants.

Snowden is technically not on Russian territory since he has not passed through immigration and he is believed to be planning to fly to a country that would give him political asylum. "Any accusations against Russia [of aiding him] are ravings and rubbish," said Putin.

[See a collection of editorial cartoons on the NSA.]

Why is Russia so unwilling to cooperate with the United States on this? Many Russia watchers note that Moscow relishes the chance to poke Washington in the eye. But Russia's reasons for not being helpful on this issue run deeper than mere ill will. Two names top Russia's list of grievances when it comes to relations with the United States and explain Moscow's intransigence – Viktor Bout and Sergei Magnitsky.

Thailand extradited notorious arms dealer Viktor Bout to the United States in 2010, a move that greatly angered Russia. Bout is currently serving a 25-year prison sentence in the United States, and the Justice Department has repeatedly refused Russian requests for his extradition. One Russian politician, Vladimir Zhirinovsky, openly suggested that Snowden be exchanged for Bout.

The other thing that makes Russian officials see red is the Magnitsky Act, named after whistle-blowing lawyer Sergei Magnitsky who died in a Russian prison after investigating cases of tax fraud by Russian officials. The bill, passed by the U.S. Congress in December 2012, bans 18 Russians from entry into the United States. Russia responded by releasing its own list of banned Americans and ending the adoption of Russian children by Americans.

U.S.-Russia relations already frayed over the Bout and Magnitsky cases, U.S. concern about the Russian crackdown on civil society and opposition groups and stark disagreement over Syria have now been further damaged by the Snowden affair.

[See a collection of political cartoons on Syria.]

Some analysts believe that Russian security agencies want to keep Snowden in Russia for questioning (one pundit joked that his arrival in Moscow was like a salmon leaping into the lap of a bear), but Putin said Russian security agencies had not contacted Snowden.

Although Washington is clearly frustrated with Moscow's refusal to hand over Snowden, it is unlikely that either country will allow relations to further deteriorate. With Obama scheduled to be in Moscow in September for the G20, neither side wants to scuttle the relationship over Snowden. And both countries have a range of mutual interests including counterterrorism, nonproliferation, cyberthreats, trade, energy, space exploration and other areas that require continued cooperation and collaboration.

The White House toned down its language in recent days, and Secretary of State John Kerry called for "calm and reasonableness." Putin, also seeking to lower tensions, said, "I hope [this] will not affect the business-like character of our relations with the United States and I hope that our partners will understand that."

Putin downplayed the entire incident with a colorful Russian phrase: "I myself would prefer not to deal with such issues. It's like shearing a piglet: there's a lot of squealing, but there's little wool."

Anya Schmemann is director of the Task Force Program at the Council on Foreign Relations.