Don't Let the Snowden Affair Scuttle Talks With Russia

The NSA leaker's asylum shouldn't put other important issues on hold.

FE_130131_putinobama.jpg
By SHARE

American fugitive Edward Snowden left the transit zone of Moscow's international airport on Thursday after Russian authorities granted him asylum for one year. Snowden had been stranded in the airport for more than five weeks after his U.S. passport was revoked.

The Russian decision infuriated the United States, which wanted Moscow to send Snowden home to face charges for disclosing secret surveillance programs. The decision to give Snowden temporary refuge has further frayed already-damaged relations between the two countries and put upcoming bilateral meetings into doubt.

White House spokesman Jay Carney said President Obama is "extremely disappointed" by Russia's action and is "evaluating the utility" of the planned summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin next month in Moscow ahead of the G20 meeting in St. Petersburg.

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

While the Snowden affair is a significant bump in the faltering effort to "reset" relations with Russia, it should not derail the relationship. Washington and Moscow are at odds over several issues, including Syria and Russia's human rights record, but other important matters still require U.S.-Russian cooperation.

The planned September summit would allow the two presidents to discuss the Snowden affair and other issues face-to-face. The meeting should not be seen as a reward, but as an opportunity for the two leaders to discuss areas of both agreement and difference. Canceling the meeting would deprive the United States of an important opportunity to directly raise concerns and expectations with the Russians.

The Snowden decision may also affect talks scheduled for next week for Secretary of State John Kerry and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel with their Russian counterparts. Those talks are supposed to cover arms control, missile defense, Iran and Syria.

On Capitol Hill, U.S. lawmakers reacted angrily to the Russian announcement, warning of repercussions in U.S.-Russian relations. But the Obama administration's response to Russia's move was restrained ("We see this as an unfortunate development," Carney said) and no retaliations were announced. "We have a broad and important relationship with Russia," Carney said. "It encompasses areas of cooperation and agreement, as well as areas of disagreement and conflict."

[Read the U.S. News debate: Should Americans Be Worried About the National Security Agency's Data Collection?]

In Moscow, officials also sought to minimize the fallout. Putin's foreign policy aide Yuri Ushakov said, "Our president has ... expressed hope many times that this will not affect the character of our relations."

Putin will likely seek to smooth relations ahead of the Winter Olympics that Russia will host next February. The Olympics -- which will take place near Putin's retreat in the Black Sea resort town of Sochi -- are an important feather in the Russian president's cap.

The asylum decision gives Russia cover to depict itself as a defender of human rights and deflect criticism of its own poor record on rights, including free speech and Internet freedom. But the temporary nature of Snowden's status also buys time for Russia to figure out what to do with the prickly thorn in the side of U.S.-Russia relations.

Putin had previously said that he would prefer for Snowden to continue from Moscow to one of the Latin American countries that have offered him asylum. And when Snowden requested asylum in Russia, Putin said it would be granted only if he stopped "harming the interests of our American partners."

[Weigh in: The NSA Leaker: Traitor or Hero?]

Although Snowden supposedly pledged not to publish more information that could harm the United States, WikiLeaks is apparently already in possession of some of his files, so the revelations are expected to continue.

As Snowden starts his new life in Russia, both countries will have to work to minimize the fallout and figure out ways to move the bilateral relationship forward in a mutually constructive way.