Vladimir Putin’s decision to grant asylum to fugitive American National Security Agency (NSA) contractor Edward Snowden has been analyzed in many different ways, most of which has to do with whether the Obama Administration will punish Russia in some meaningless way over openly giving cover to one of the most wanted men in the world (they won’t) and whether Russian intelligence has already pumped him for information or will get information from him in the near future (the answer to both is yes).
What most analyses have missed is that Putin was always going to grant Snowden at least temporary asylum for two reasons. First, it is wildly popular. The West has largely moved past the Cold War. The Russians have that calendared for around two days after never. Snowden is a popular figure in Russia precisely because America wants him and he embarrassed his home country, and although Vlad Putin is not much of a democrat, he does love the popular support he enjoys.
Second and more importantly, Russia has been playing a very carefully calibrated game since Putin came to power to remind its neighborhood that America will not be asserting its power forever, but Russia surely will. Putin’s move gives Russia yet another example to offer to recalcitrant former vassal states that Russia will always win these battles, and America is weak and timid.
This game is played out daily in Ukraine, Moldova, and Georgia, three countries that would very much like not to have to deal with Russia very much longer, and yet must. The recent spate of Russians-are-being-oppressed stories in Pravda about Moldova are a pretext for another Russian military adventure in Trans-Dniester, where the Russian troop withdrawal stopped with two-thirds of Russian forces remaining. The Snowden affair is a visible reminder, together with Georgia’s troubles in 2008, that when Russia moves, the West is too timid or too weak to act.
What this will mean for the former Soviet bloc with European integration slowing and America retrenching is yet to be seen; but so far, Russia can clearly claim its policy a success, and no Western leader — or Eastern European one — would truly contradict it.
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