As the Edward Snowden/PRISM affair continues to unfold, American and European analysts focused on Russia have noted with grim almost-surprise the manner in which Russia has acted as Snowden’s defender of late, even in the face of American demands for extradition of the NSA leaker.
Anyone who has lived in Russia for any period of time would understand what is happening: Vladimir Putin is not merely teaching Barack Obama the meaning of Realpolitik (it is not merely drone strikes), he is also teaching neighboring former Soviet republics the limits of America’s willingness and ability to project power.
This is a lesson Moscow is reinforcing through its outright snub of the US demand for the return of Snowden, a man who by his own account has stolen untold amounts of classified US data and has, by other accounts, shared it with the People’s Republic of China and Russia. It is very hard to classify the latter actions as anything other than treason under American law.
Yet the US is still dealing in the diplomatic niceties of a different time, and Putin is loving it.
Americans likely believe that what Putin is doing is snubbing Obama. This is undeniably true, but is only part of his play. What he is really doing is telling his slowly-dying country that it remains a great power (thus helping him put down internal dissent) and demonstrating to wavering neighbors such as Ukraine, Moldova, Azerbaijan, and Georgia that when Russia speaks, the world listens.
When America speaks, Moscow safely ignores.
It is a lesson driven home over the course of a decade, a lesson that becomes more important over time. If the West cannot even understand the message, it cannot counteract it.
It can only watch in dumbstruck awe as the Russian Empire is reconstructed in all but name.