Why Did Russia Decide to Give Asylum to Edward Snowden?


After over one month of living in the international transit zone of Moscow Airport, whistle-blower Edward Snowden has been awarded temporary asylum in Russia. Snowden's legal representative, Anatoly Kucherena, told a Russian television network that the papers issued by the Russian Immigration Service allow him to live, work and travel in Russia for a year, and can be renewed annually. Kucherena stated that Snowden has been relocated to a "safe place," which will not be disclosed, and reportedly has "no plans" of leaving Russia. He noted that Snowden had been reading Russian classic literature and begun studying the Russian language.

The Russian decision to harbor Snowden is rife with controversy. Kremlin foreign policy aide Yuri Ushakov stated that "this situation is too insignificant to affect political relations." Some U.S. politicians, however, see the matter differently. Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.), for instance, claimed that "now is the time to fundamentally rethink our relationship with Putin's Russia." Moreover, White House spokesman Jay Carney told reporters that the U.S. is "extremely disappointed" with Russia's decision. He also mentioned that the decision might derail a planned September summit in Moscow between President Obama and President Putin, but added that no final decision had yet been made. In any case, the Russian maneuver is most certainly going to undermine the current status of U.S.-Russian relations.

The question then arises as to why Russia decided to grant asylum to Snowden. Evidently, the view that Russia simply decided to take in the whistle-blower in an act of unprecedented benevolence does not jibe with the traditional stance of Russian diplomacy. The argument that Edward Snowden could prove invaluable as a diplomatic pawn, however, does. The simple fact is that Edward Snowden, who has worked for a number of years at high levels of U.S.-security clearance, has a lot to offer Russia in the way of information, and can serve as significant diplomatic leverage in a future dispute with the U.S. 

Indeed, if Russia had wanted to take Snowden on purely ideological grounds, they could have done like many Latin American countries such as Venezuela and Bolivia, and offered him permanent asylum. But that does not seem to be the case. Instead, my guess is that Russia intends to harbor Snowden until the value of keeping him outweighs the value of giving him up, hence the one-year-renewable visa. Following this logic, the turning point will come either when Snowden ceases to have anything valuable to offer Moscow, or when the U.S. comes out with a counter-offer that Russia cannot refuse. Since the latter does not seem likely in the present state of affairs, Russia has no reason to give up Snowden.

Ultimately, the Russian decision can be traced back to some of the most basic international relations principles. At present, the perceived payoff to Russia of keeping Snowden is simply greater than the perceived payoff of turning him in; all Moscow would currently stand to gain with the extradition of Snowden is a little Washington goodwill — and that isn't worth much, if anything. It seems like Edward Snowden is safe to dabble in the writings of Dostoyevsky and the like — at least for now.